Who are the leaders of today? Are they the sports figures whose images adorn the bedrooms of adolescent boys? Movie stars? Politicians? And what qualities define a leader? Is it simply the ability to capture the ears and hearts of the masses, or is it something more?
From this week’s Torah reading, Tetzaveh, we learn about the nature of a true leader. Surprisingly, our lesson comes not from the leader himself, but from the exclusion of that said leader.
The leader I am referring to is Moses, of course. From the time of his birth until the end of the Torah, he is mentioned by name in every portion. With one exception.
Despite a good part of Tetzaveh discussing G-d’s commands to Moses, he is never mentioned by name.
One of the well-known commentaries on the Torah is the Ba’al HaTurim. It was written by Rabbi Jacob Meir ben Asher (1268-1340) and analyzes the significance of word usage (or, in this case, word omission). The Ba’al HaTurim explains that in order to understand why Moses is not mentioned by name in Tetzaveh, we must look forward to the reading for the following week, Ki Tissa, which – amongst other things – discusses the sin of the Golden Calf.
After that tumultuous event, Moses appeals to G-d for forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people: “Now, if You forgive their sin (then well and good), but if not, please erase me from Your book (the Torah) which you have written” (Exodus 32:32).
Although the Jews were indeed forgiven for our sin, the Talmud (Makkot 11a) teaches us that the words of a righteous person (tzaddik) have an impact. Thus, Moses’ name is “erased” from Tetzaveh (but not the entire Torah, as would have happened if the Jews had not been forgiven).
Think about it: Moses’ entire life was dedicated to G-d and the Torah. In fact, we often refer to the Torah as “the Five Books of Moses”! One could say that Moses lived his entire life for G-d and the Torah; how could he voluntarily remove his name from the Torah?!
Yet we must understand that Moses also lived for the Jewish people. Truthfully, he did not “also” live for the Jewish people, but that took precedence in his life. Furthermore, in addition to being deeply connected with the essence of the Torah, Moses was also intrinsically connected with the Jewish people. In the words of Rashi, “Moses is Israel and Israel is Moses” (commentary to Numbers 21:21).
Moses loved the Jewish people so much that he was willing to forgo his own self in order to help them (ie. to be forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf).
It was as if Moses said to G-d, “If the Torah does not allow for forgiveness of the Jews, then I do not want any part of it!” Even though Moses had a very deep connection with the Torah, his connection with the Jewish people was even deeper and more profound.
From this behavior of Moses we can understand what a true leader is. He is one whose entire life is dedicated to the people, to the extent that he is willing to forgo what is good for himself, to the extent of self-sacrifice.
It is interesting to note that the verse in which Moses demands forgiveness for the Jewish people – and if not, “Erase me from Your book” – is the 32nd verse of the 32nd chapter of Exodus. Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value (known as gematria). When spelled out, the Hebrew-letter-equivalent of the number 32 spells the Hebrew word for heart – lev.
Perhaps in this gematria we see an allusion to this essential quality of a Jewish leader: love. First and foremost of the qualities of Moses that made him a leader were his love and intrinsic connection to the Jews. Without this, he simply would not have been a leader.
Furthermore, this verse appears in the book of Exodus. This is perhaps an allusion to the fact that the way that the Jewish people will experience a true and complete Exodus is through love – Ahavat Yisrael.
Although not everyone is cracked up to be a Moses, we may nevertheless learn from his essential love of the people, to the extent that he was willing to have self-sacrifice for our benefit. Each of us must try to emulate Moses in our relationships with others.