Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
A Tremulous Hesitation
In this week’s parsha, God instructs Moshe to invest Aaron and his sons with the priesthood, a seven-day induction ceremony that involves sacrifice, sprinkled oil, and sacred garments. Moshe is instructed to wash and dress Aaron’s sons, to anoint them with oil, and to sacrifice two rams – one as a burnt offering, and one as a ram of ordination. The Torah’s description of Moshe’s sacrifice of this second ram—the ram that will serve to ordain Aaron and his sons—is marked by a Shalshelet, an unusually long and tremulous cantillation note that appears in only four places in the Torah. The Shalshelet is generally understood as signifying hesitation and ambivalence – it appears when Lot hesitates before fleeing Sodom (Gen. 19:16), and when Eliezer pauses outside of Haran to ask for God’s help in choosing a bride for Isaac (Gen. 24:12), and when Joseph struggles to refuse the overtures of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:8). What, then, is Moshe’s ambivalence when it comes to slaughtering the ram of ordination, and what does it have to do with the approaching holiday of Pesach?
The Tanchuma (Shmini 3) explains that Moshe expected to become the high priest, and was disappointed to have to surrender this role to his brother. Perhaps the use of the Shalshelet in our parsha, then, serves to give voice to Moshe’s hesitation and ambivalence. He sacrifices the ram of ordination as God commands him, but he does so with a heavy heart. Moshe wishes that he could take on this role himself. After all, until this point, he has been the sole intermediary between God and the people: It was he who communicated God’s instructions regarding the Exodus, and he who channeled the divine spirit so that the people would defeat Amalek in battle, and it was he who went up on Sinai to receive the Torah. Moreover, it was Moshe who received all the instructions from God regarding the building of the Mishkan; God told him the precise details of how to construct each and every pole and peg and curtain. Why should his brother now serve in the Tabernacle whose construction he so thoroughly and painstakingly oversaw?
The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) links this moment of tremulous hesitation in our parsha to another moment of hesitation that took place at the very beginning of Moshe’s career, at the burning bush. When God charged Moshe to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe was initially reluctant to take on this role: “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent” (Ex.4:13). God is none too pleased: “The Lord became angry with Moshe and He said: ‘There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily” (Ex. 4:14). The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai questions why Aaron is referred to as a Levite, since he will become a priest. He explains that God had initially intended for Moshe to be the priest and Aaron to be the Levite; but now that Moshe has angered God with his reluctance to lead the people, he will be the Levite and Aaron will be the priest. Since Moshe hesitated at the burning bush—when he was invested by God with his leadership role in what was essentially his own induction ceremony—he will now have to induct Aaron into the priesthood in his stead.
That moment when Moshe hesitates just before slaughtering the ram of ordination hearkens back to the burning bush, but it also hearkens forward to another moment of ambivalence at the end of Moshe’s life, when he stands at the summit of Pisgah and gazes out at the promised land. Moshe knows that the time of his death is approaching, but he is not yet ready to let go. The role he has retained is not one he can yet relinquish. He hesitates at Pisgah, holding on momentarily to a future that will not be his. Just as Moshe builds the Mishkan but does not merit serving in it, he also leads the people through the wilderness to the land of Israel, but does not merit entering it. This is the great tragedy of Moshe’s life – he is fated to lay the groundwork for a reality that he himself does not merit experiencing. It is not he, but his brother Aaron, who will enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and atone for the sins of the people. And it is not he, but his successor Joshua, who will enter the promised land and lead the Israelites in their conquest.
In spite of his centrality to the Pesach story, Moshe is famously absent from the Haggadah. Just as his role as a leader was to set the stage and then retreat from it, his literary legacy in the text of the Seder is also one of absence. And yet this absence is not just a tragedy, but also a triumph, because in a sense Moshe is imitating God, who created the world and then retreated from it, entrusting the world to human hands. Perhaps Moshe merits being called a “man of God” (Deut. 33:1) at the end of his life because he learns from God that a great leader is judged not by the role he plays on center stage, but by the scenes that unfold once he has withdrawn into the wings. Moshe, in providing the people with the laws and teachings that would govern their lives, paved the way for those who come after him. His memory is not emblazoned with memorials or testimonials, and no one knows where he is buried, but no matter – he has left us with the legacy of his Torah, which bears record not just of his hesitation, but also of his enduring hold.