Tetzaveh – What is Midrash?



                                                               (Chapters 27:20–30:1)

                                                              Moses’ Name is Missing


This biblical portion Tetzaveh is the only one from Exodus through Deuteronomy that does not contain Moses’s name. Why? And what can we learn from this?


One midrashic[1] suggestion for this unusual occurrence is that it has to do with Moses’ plea to God that God forgive the Israelites for their act of worshipping the golden calf. “If you don’t do so,” Moses continued, “erase me from the book that you wrote.”[2] The Midrash comments upon Moses words: “A righteous person’s curse, even if unintended, will be fulfilled.” Thus, the Midrash seems to see Moses’s declaration as a self-inflicted curse, and understands that the omission of Moses’s name from this portion of the Torah is a fulfillment of that curse. (I will discuss this idea below.)


Another suggested reason is: Aaron is entitled to the limelight at this point. The laws in this portion focus on his role in the tabernacle. In fact, his name is mentioned here seven times.[3]


Still another explanation for the absence is happenstance: the portions were not divided by God, but by humans during the first millennia of the Common Era and it just by fluke that Moses’s name is not in this section.


Some questions about curses: Don’t rational people realize that curses don’t work? Why then did some rabbis think that Moses’s self-inflicted himself with a curse? Why did the Torah prohibit cursing if it doesn’t work? The Torah states: “You should not revile a judge, nor curse a ruler”[4] and “You must not curse the deaf.”[5]


One answer might be: even though curses are not efficacious, they are insulting, and the Bible is teaching that people should not utter them or make any kind of insulting remark. A second possible solution is that even though there are people who know curses do not work, there are others who believe they do work and they fear curses. Thus, out of respect for their worldview, you should not curse. Still a third idea is that it is likely that many people who think they are certain that curses are ineffectual, retain a subconscious worry that they may work. So avoiding cursing avoids inflicting psychological harm. Fourthly, curses provoke reactions by the person who is cursed, so prohibiting curses, reduces harm.


Finally, the word curse in the cited verses might be understood symbolically. The biblical prohibition is not restricted to cursing a ruler; it is suggesting treating rulers in a proper manner.[6] Similarly, the command not to curse the deaf, a person who is unable to hear the words, teaches that people should be careful about treating others well, even when they are not able to hear what you are saying, see what you are doing, or not even present.


This symbolic explanation can apply to the Midrash mentioned above. Maimonides (1138-1204) explained[7] that a person who accepts what is stated in a Midrash literally is a fool and a person who rejects the Midrash entirely is also a fool. People need to realize that most Midrashim were composed as parables designed to teach lessons.


This Midrash could be understood to be saying: Yes, what I am about to say never happened. But what I want you to realize is that words can harm others and even yourself. So be careful about what you say.


[1] One of the purposes of Midrashim (plural of Midrash, compilations of didactic essays) was to teach lessons. The earliest Midrashim date around the beginning of the Common Era, although some scholars date them as early as 200 BCE. The earliest Midrashim were not recorded in final edited versions until around 400 CE. This Midrash is very late and is found in Midrash Hane’elam Zohar Chadash 60; Rabbeinu Bachya, Exodus 32:32.

[2] Exodus 32:32.

[3] It is unlikely that Scripture repeats Aaron’s name seven times by happenstance. The Bible frequently repeats important ideas seven times to highlight their significance. One example among dozens of others is Genesis 33:3 where Jacob returning home after a twenty year absence and fearing his older brother Esau will kill him, bows before him seven times.

[4]  Exodus 22:27.

[5] Leviticus 19:14.

[6] For the sake of a well-working society and to protect people from the wrath of rulers.

[7] In Chelek.

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