When stepping back really means stepping up


In 1860, a relatively unknown one-term congressman named Abraham Lincoln stunned the country by prevailing over three prominent rivals — William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates — to win the Republican nomination for President. 

But even more surprising was what he did after being elected president: He appointed all three to his cabinet — Seward as secretary of state, Chase as secretary of the treasury, and Bates as attorney general.

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The commentaries note a fascinating detail in this week’s portion of Tetzaveh: This is the only portion in the last four books of the Torah (after his birth) with no mention of Moshe’s name.

The Midrash suggests that when Moshe, in his attempt to save the Jewish people after the Golden Calf, pleas before G-d to be “erased from His book, if you will destroy this people” (Shemot 32:32), the decree of such a righteous person must be fulfilled to some degree. So Hashem leaves out Moshe’s name in this week’s portion.

The obvious question then is why this portion?

This is the second of two portions that discuss the mitzvah to build a Mishkan, and it focuses largely on the role of the kohanim — the daily lighting of the golden menorah, the special clothing they wore, some parts of their daily service, and the special ceremony inducting Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.

In short, this portion introduces the kehuna, the priesthood, even though the dedication and commencement of their service will only begin in the next book, Vayikra.

One might have expected to find some jealousy or at least hesitation on Moshe’s part, considering this was a role neither Moshe nor any of his offspring would ever enjoy.

Yet Moshe displays not a hint of jealousy or struggle. And, perhaps to make this point, does not even include his own name in the entire portion. 

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It is interesting to note that Moshe perhaps followed Aaron’s lead. When Moshe is first told to lead the Jewish people out of slavery, he suggests to G-d that Aaron might be a better choice. Yet Hashem’s response is, “Aaron your brother will come out to greet you, and will rejoice in his heart” (ibid. 4:14). Aaron displayed no envy when Moshe was appointed leader, he simply rejoiced in Moshe’s arrival.

This is significant given the enmity often found between brothers in the Torah: Cain and Abel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, Yosef and his brothers.

One wonders where these brothers, along with their sister, learned this impressive humility. They must have had incredible parents. Yet we know very little about their parents; the first time we find mention of them, they are simply described as a man and a woman (“ish” and “isha,” ibid. 2:1-2).

This same term is used in Pirkei Avot when describing the value of stepping up when there is no one else to do the job: “Bemakom she’ein anashim, hishtadel le’hiyot ish.” In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (Avot 2:6).

As a teenager (ibid. 3:11), Moshe ventures out and sees the suffering of his brothers, and sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. He “looks back and forth, and sees there is no man [ish]” (ibid. v.12). Here, too, Moshe is not named, he is described as a “lad.”

To be a leader, it has to be about the big picture — the cause, the people. The smaller the ego, the greater the leader. It is not accidental that Moshe’s greatest trait was his extreme humility.

In fact, Pirkei Avot (end chap. 4; see Maimon-ides: Rambam Hilchot Deot 2:7) tells us there are three things that remove a person from the world: jealousy, desire, and pursuit of honor. What these three flaws have in common is that they involve a person placing themselves at the center, rather than the higher purpose they are meant to serve.

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If a person is envious of what someone else has, it is a clear indicator that he or she has not accepted that G-d has a different role in mind for them.

Healthy systems of government have a separation or balance of powers, through which leaders realize not only what they are meant to do, but what they are not meant to do. When the president interferes with the judiciary, things get complicated. And the same is true of healthy institutions in general: if the CEO is too involved with the accounting department, it doesn’t work.

And one last thought, which provides a great example in the realm of education: Our portion opens with the mitzvah of the kohen to light the menorah every day in the Mikdash. From the word “leha’alot” (ibid. 27:20) which literally means the kohen is to raise up the flame in lighting, the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) infers that he is meant to kindle the flame until it rises on his own. The kohen would not remove his hand from the wick until there was an independently strong flame. 

The Talmud suggests in numerous places that the menorah symbolized Torah (see Bava Batra 25b as an example). Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests, therefore, that when we educate our children, our job is to make ourselves unnecessary. We have to get the flame to burn on its own.

Success in education is when our students or children can stand on their own. The wisdom of a good educator is knowing when to step back in order to let the child fly.

If we step back too soon, it can be disaster, as when the Jewish people (according to some commentaries) felt abandoned at the foot of Sinai in the debacle of the Golden Calf. But if we get it right, then they, our children and students, can build a Mishkan, a temple all their own.