A Few Thoughts on Tetzaveh

Commenting on the parable in Luke 15:11-32, concerning a father and two brothers, one elder and one younger, Amy-Jill Levine points out,

“As all biblically literate people know, the beginning words of this parable, “There was a man who had two sons,” introduce a literary convention. As these readers also know, we do well to identify with the younger son. However, the story in Luke 15 is a parable, and parables usually do not do what we might expect.1

She then reminds her readers of other well-known siblings from the Tanakh. Adam and Havah (Eve) had two sons, Cain and Abel whose story eventually ended in fratricide, as Cain killed his younger brother because his (Abel’s) offering was acceptable to HaShem while Cain’s was not. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael was the elder, and Isaac the younger. Though Abraham loved Ishmael, his firstborn, Isaac was the child of promise, (Genesis 17:19 & Galatians 4:23). Animosity grew within the family which led to Hagar and Ishmael’s eventual exile from Abraham’s household. Probably the most well-known elder/younger sibling rivalry is Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Though it was prophesied that the elder would serve the younger, the deceit and trickery that took place constructed a barrier of hatred and distrust between the brothers that has never been fully reconciled.  Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim are the final elder/younger two-son combination to mention. Like with the other examples, the second son, Ephraim, was the chosen son. He received the patriarchal blessing from his grandfather Jacob and his progeny became synonymous with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Manasseh, the eldest son, eventually disappeared into obscurity.

So why this history lesson concerning elder and younger sons? Because this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh (“You Shall Command”), Exodus 27:20 – 30:102 calls attention another elder/younger pair; only this pair seems to break the mold. The elder son is overshadowed by the younger one in many aspects, yet there does not appear to be the animosity so prevalent in the other sibling relationships. Have you guessed yet who this week’s elder/younger sibling pair is?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ z”l Covenant & Conversation commentary on Tetzaveh brought this pair to my attention. Rabbi Sacks notes,

Tetzaveh is the only sedra (Torah portion) from the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy, that does not contain the word “Moses”. For once Moses, the hero, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, is offstage. Instead, our focus is on his elder brother Aaron who, elsewhere, is often in the background. Indeed, virtually the whole sedra is devoted to the role Moses did not occupy, except briefly – that of priest in general, High Priest in particular.3

Reading the passage in context, one quickly realizes that while not mentioned by name, HaShem has been speaking about Moses since Exodus 25:1, the beginning of last week’s parasha, Terumah. But still, the name of Moses does not appear at all in Parashat Tetzaveh. Rabbi Sacks asked, “Is there any larger significance to the absence of Moses from this passage?” He proceeds to answer his musing. First, he notes Moses’ argument with HaShem about his ability to return to Egypt and perform the task HaShem has set for him. Hashem finally responds, 

“In fact, Aaron the Levite is your brother. I know that he can speak well. Moreover, he is on his way to meet you! When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.” (Exodus 4:14)

In this verse we see a couple of things, (1) Aaron was an accomplished orator, (2) he was looking for his younger brother, whom he had not seen in quite some time, and (3) he will be very happy to see Moses. Points two and three suggest that Aaron and Moses had a close relationship at one time been. This point is further verified a couple of chapters later when Aaron’s and Moses’ lineage is given.

Amram married Jochebed, his father’s sister, and she bore him Aaron and Moses. Amram lived 137 years. … These are the same Aaron and Moses to whom ADONAI said, “Bring Bnei-Yisrael out from the land of Egypt according to their divisions.” These are the ones that spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring Bnei-Yisrael out from Egypt. These are that same Moses and Aaron. (Exodus 6:20 & 26-27)

Both Amram and his wife Jochebed were Levites; thus so were Aaron and Moses. But what is not so clear in English is the closeness of the brothers as verses 26-27 indicate. The word translated most as “these” is the Hebrew word הוּא (hu)—the third person singular, masculine pronoun “he” in English. Notice that הוּא is used in the first and the last occurrence of “these” in these two verses. The Hebrew literally reads, “he is the same (or that same), Aaron and Moses….” Before thinking this is a scribal error, consider that the third “these” the first phrase of verse 27, “These are the ones…” is the third person plural pronoun הֵם (hem), “they.” If it was simply a scribal error, all three occurrences would have been corrected. 

The sages dealt with this apparent inconsistency by redefining the meaning of “hu”. In the Bavali, Megilla 11a, it’s written,

Similarly, “This is [hu] Aaron and Moses” (Exodus 6:26); they remained in their righteousness from the beginning of their life to the end of their life.4

In other words, the “hu” represented a degree of personal righteousness that both Aaron and Moses maintained throughout their lives. While understandable looking back on their lives as portrayed in Torah, I believe that Rabbi Sacks’ suggestion may be even more rational. In the article cited above, he noted,

The unmistakable implication is that they were like a single individual. They were as one. There was no hierarchy between them: sometimes Aaron’s name appears first, sometimes Moses’. On this there is a wonderful Midrash, based on the verse in Psalms (85:11) “Loving-kindness and truth meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”

Loving-kindness – this refers to Aaron.  Truth – this refers to Moses. Righteousness – this refers to Moses.  Peace – this refers to Aaron.

Shemot Rabbah 5:10

According to Rabbi Sacks, their various life situations and stations in life did not affect the respectful, familial feeling between the brothers. It is at this point I think there is a lesson for all of us. Some of us are in the position of the elder sibling, some are the younger. The first four sets of siblings had either rocky or really raunchy familial relationships, the last, Aaron and Moses, in spite of everything that had happened in each of their lives, were as one person. I believe it is safe to say that the difference between the different sibling pairs is the choices they made. Remember HaShem’s warning to Cain, 

“Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, it will lift. But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the doorway. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

It appears that Aaron and Moses chose not to allow anything to affect their relationship with one another. We have the choice to make with our siblings – both natural and spiritual. In this, I think that Rav Shaul’s encouragement is key.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be proud but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own eyes.Repay no one evil for evil; give thought to what is good in the eyes of all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in shalom with all people. (Romans 12:16-18)


1 Amy Jill Levine. Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 2014, Apple Books

2 All Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

3 https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/tetzaveh/who-is-honoured/

4 The Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli Volume 12: Tractate Ta’anit, Tractate Megilla. Jerusalem, Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2014, p 258.

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