October 17, 2021 |

Presences and Absences

It takes a fair amount of work to see the things that are right in front of us. There are so many competing demands for our attention that we sometimes just send stuff to the spam folder. Who can pay attention to every email, advertisement or headline that is shouted in our direction? We would be paralyzed by over-stimulation if we didn't choose to ignore some things. So, even though we walk down the same street every day, we may not notice the names of the stores or if there are mailboxes or fire hydrants. Unless we have a reason to notice these things, we often do not. Another reason we don't notice things is when we are too used to them. We are so accustomed to living with our spouse that we have ceased noticing - unless something reminds us -- how beautiful they are. We are so used to living in a city where the garbage on the sidewalk is stacked higher than our heads or where our sight lines are full of crisscrossing power and phone lines that we simply don't 'see' them anymore. A third reason is that we sometimes do not know how to look properly. Like the girl who's into you and using every flirtation technique known to woman and yet you remain blithely unaware. Like when the answer to your problem is right in front of your eyes, but you can't quite see it.

Still, it can be even harder to see the things that are NOT in front of us. First of all, we are so distracted by the things that ARE in front of us that we don't have time, energy or will to think about other things. I am guilty of this myself. I often tell people to send me email (though I complain about how much email I get) because when it's sitting right there in my inbox, there is a much greater chance that I will pay attention to it. The silent task, the hidden thing you were supposed to do that has not squeaked, pinged or alerted you to the fact that it needs doing, that is the silent assassin. The quiet friend who needs your support may be overlooked in favor of the squeaky wheel. In a bad friendship, it might be easier to notice all the things that are there-- outings, parties, good times - and harder to notice what's missing from it: respect, real affection, loyalty. Sometimes, when something is wrong, you have that feeling that something is missing, which just keeps nagging at you, but you can't quite put your finger on what it is.

Another reason that we don't see things when they are missing is that it is subtle work. A missing word can seem innocent until the bright spotlight is shined on it, like noticing that the New York Times never calls Palestinian terrorists, well, "terrorists". The missing word reveals more than many flowing pages of text. There is a story told about Rav Chaim of Volozhin, who was asked a Halachic question the day before Passover by one of his congregants. The poor Jew asked the surprising question "Can you fulfill your obligation to drink 4 cups of wine at the Passover seder with milk?" Now, one might quickly seek to respond to this question by wondering what he must have been thinking (it says wine, dude!) or by analyzing what the details of the commandment are and whether or not it might be possible. But Rav Chaim - rather than focusing on what was in front of his face - paid attention to what was not. He gave the poor man a double portion of Passover charity, though the man had not asked for it. When asked why, he responded that anyone who asks if they can fulfill the four cups with milk must have no wine - must be unable to afford a bottle of wine -- with which to fulfill the mitzva. The question is not a real Halachic question, but a plea for help from someone who lacks the basics with which to celebrate the holiday.

And so it is that you would probably never notice that Moshe's name is missing from this week's Torah portion. If he were mentioned a hundred times, you might notice. If the Torah had someone say "where's Moshe?", you might notice. But amidst all of the details of the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle) and the clothing and accoutrements of the kohanim (priests), who would ever stop to check if Moshe was still with us[1]?

To notice such a slight omission requires diligence, patience, perceptiveness and sensitivity. Only a person who loves the Torah would notice such a thing, a person who pays attention to each nuance and turn of phrase in the Torah's words. The Torah is not, needless to say, the New York Times, or God's blog; it is not skimming material. It is deep water and the more you look into it, the more it reveals about Itself and, like the mirror of Erised or the mirror of Galadriel, about the one who looks into it. The original word for scribe ought to be derived from the word for writing or quill, but it is, in fact, sofer, which means "counter" (and, possibly, "teller", or "reader"). The ancient scribes and Massoretes counted every word in our holy writings, how it was used, when it was used and where it was used. They were not content to read what was written, but to notice what was not. Seeing what's missing is an act of love.

In other words, there is an ongoing love affair with the Torah that goes through many stages. The passionate student of Torah will first endeavor to see what is there. Just like getting to know the beautiful and intriguing young woman or man you have just met, you will want to get to know her and spend every waking minute with her. You might start by reading through the Torah a few times in English to get the general sense of what's there, then learn the stories and commandments of the Torah in more depth, and then learn the Hebrew so you can access the original words and begin to study some of the commentaries, ancient and modern. By this time, of course, you are in a deep and committed relationship with the Torah.

The next step is to begin to notice what is NOT there. When you know your boyfriend or your spouse really well, you even know things they don't tell you, things they don't even have to say. In Torah learning, you may start to ask: Why doesn't the Torah put these stories in chronological order? Why does the Torah use this word (i.e. "tetzaveh", "you shall command", the name of our sidra) instead of another word ("tedaber", "you shall speak") . Why doesn't the Torah tell us anything about the 38 years the Jews wandered in the desert? And so on.

Of course, even this is not the end of the story. The deeper and longer you learn, the more you find. Once we have noticed that Moshe is not mentioned in this portion, we may have to step back and ask if this is important or not. It is certainly true, but is it important? Is there a rule that Moshe's name should be mentioned in every Torah portion (no)? Are there other portions in which his name is not mentioned? (yes) Are there other reasons why it might make sense his name is not mentioned here? (there are). Perhaps there is even more to this story than we thought.

I, for one, think that Moshe's absence from this sidra is striking, not because there's some rule that he should be mentioned, but because the Torah has every reason and opportunity to mention him. The first three sections of this Torah portion all begin with one word "and you" (see 27:20, 28:1 and 28:3). Who is this mysterious "you" person, kemosabe? It is Moshe! But the more times we say "you", the more we wonder why the Torah either said nothing at all (instead of "and you shall command", say just "command"; why "and you?") or did not mention Moshe by name? We may notice that the whole portion is about Aharon and his sons: their jobs, their inauguaration as priests, their clothes. And you wonder if Moshe - the 700 lb gorilla in the room - did not want to rain on his brother's parade? Why make this sidra about Moshe when he is most considerate to leave it for his big brother[2]?

We might even notice that this Torah portion always falls out in the first week of Adar. For advanced students, a bell might go off, remembering that Moshe died on the 7th of Adar, which is still commemorated as his yahrtzeit[3]. Is it not interesting that the resonances of the calendar (Moshe's death this week in time) might be felt in the very words - or lack of words -- of the portion we read?

Finally - and most fascinating to me - is the undeniable fact that Moshe is very much present in this sidra. He is everywhere: the master of ceremonies, the CEO and manager, the liasion, the event planner. It is only his NAME that is not absent, not him. And there is a difference. Often, we might be tempted to think that when a name is unmentioned, the person also seeks to exist. But for those who can see what is both there and not there, it is not necessary to put one's name up in lights, to say it too loudly or too often. For those who can appreciate humility, we can see that Moshe's influence is profound and constant, but he does not need his name to be front and center. It is often a mark of low self-esteem or lack of confidence to have to shout your name out for everyone to hear, lest they forget about you. It is the supremely confident and contented individual who can decline this drug.

Isn't it enough if what we do in the world has the impact we seek? If we do good, are good, help others, sanctify God's name, study Torah etc etc. Do we need to get the credit, to have our names mentioned all the time, or else it is not worth anything? Moshe teaches us, the Torah teaches us - and oh so subtly - that one can be there and not there at the same time, that our actions can resonate and impact without our ever being mentioned at all. Moreover, Moshe has left some absence, some blank space, some tzimtzum[4], for others to fill, whether Aaron, the other Jews or, perhaps, all of us. Shabbat shalom!

[1] A similar question is asked about Moshe's name in the Passover Haggada (where he appears only once) and about God's name in the Scroll of Esther, in which He is not mentioned. Each of these is an interesting topic on their own.

[2] A similar observation may be made about the small "aleph", in the first word of Leviticus 1:1, written in the Torah in a much smaller font than the rest of the word. We would also first notice it and then try to grapple with whether or not it's important and, if it is, what could it be telling us? Moshe's humility? Something else?

[3] It is also when most burial societies hold their annual benefit; consider what the reason for this might be.

[4] This is a kabbalisric idea that Hashem "withdrew" or "contracted" His presence to make room for the world at creation.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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