(Maybe the third time is the charm? This musing is a reworking of my 2006/5766 musing for Tetzaveh “Silent Yet Present,” which was a re-working of my 1999/5759 musing for Tetzaveh, “Someone’s Missing.” )
Hmm, let’ see. Aaron. Nadav and Avihu. (Keep an eye on those two-Game of Thrones has nothing on Torah.) Eleazar. Ithamar. Again Aaron. More Aaron. Lots more Aaron. More Aaron than we know what to do with.
But one name is conspicuously absent in all these verses. Moshe. Where’d he go? Well, if we go back to the beginning of last week’s parasha, T’rumah, and consider that there is pretty much one continuous discourse by G”d to Moses from Exodus 25:1 to 30:10, we see that Moshe is indeed there, but silent and not mentioned. Why?
Well, there’s the explanation of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman, that this is prescient of Moshe’s death, which occurred around the time of year Tetzaveh is usually read. Nice idea, if not really provable, but not where I’m headed.
There’s always those historical-critical theories, like Wellhausen’s JEDP concept of multiple strands of authorship. (Wellhausen’s original concept has undergone lots of transformation over the decades, and is not as popular in scholarly circles as it once was.) That’s not where I’m headed either.
We could consider some other possible meanings:
- G”d reminding us that we wouldn’t always have Moshe around to deal with things.
- G”d reminding us that these instructions aren’t just for Moshe, but for all of us.
- G”d reminding us that no matter how important we think we are, we’re not indispensable.
- G”d reminding us that all of us are important.
All possibilities. But not the one that jumped out at me.
My idea is that G”d is telling us simply to “shut up and listen.” Or, as the text-based shorthand that has entered our everyday vernacular says, STFU!
That’s one darn long oratory by G”d from the start of T’rumah to the end of Tetzaveh. But Moses says not a word. In this way, he sets a great example for us.
If I were to begin to describe my own faults, one that would leap to the front would be that I’m not a great listener. I often interrupt and can’t seem to refrain from “putting in my oar.” (If I had to stand around for that whole time, listening to that long set of instructions from G”d, I doubt I could have remained silent the whole time. “But….” I would have said, or “How can we….” or “hang on a second, you want us to what?” or “two rams? why two? wouldn’t three be better?” or “a BLUE ephod cover? Blue? Do you know how hard it is to make BLUE?” or “hey, you gotta explain this Urim and Thummim thing to me.” I suspect G”d would have grown so annoyed with my constant interruptions, I’d wind up suffering the fate that Nadav and Avihu would soon suffer. (Remember, they get toasted by G”d for a well-meaning but unsolicited sacrifice. Sorry for the spoiler, folks.)
Yet Moshe, he just stood there and listened. Or maybe he was passive-aggressive, and he let his emotions out later? I can just picture it. Moshe takes Aaron and Miriam aside and says to them:
“My G”d, oops, excuse me for that, I thought I was gonna die of boredom from that speech! Could you believe it? Who does he think he is, G”d or something? Whoops, he is…well, NEVERMIND,” and thus Moshe goes off muttering under his breath. (Sorry, I got lazy and jus went with the gendered male word.)
I’m rationalizing. I’m trying to picture Moshe as imperfect as myself. Clearly Moshe had his faults. But being a bad listener was, generally NOT one of them. (I can hear the nit-pickers now, citing the struck rock moment – the one thing that gets him in dutch with G”d later. I would argue that it isn’t a case of not listening-he heard the instructions quite clearly-it’s a case of not following the directions exactly right-doing more/different than told-hmmm-somewhat like Nadav and Avihu. There’s a parallel I never caught before. Remind me when we get to Chukat.)
Our sacred texts are not silent about silence.
“Even a fool, if he keeps silent, is deemed wise; Intelligent, if he seals his lips.” (Proverbs 17:28)
“The vehicle for wisdom is silence.” (Talmud: Avot 3:13)
“When two quarrel, they see which becomes silent first and say: This one is of superior birth.” (Talmud Kiddushin 71b)
To expand upon these, we’ve all heard well-worn maxims that are variations of
“the secret to x is not just where the [component of x] is, but as much where the [component of x] is not.
Substitute music for x, and notes for [component of x.] Substitute good lighting design for x and light for [component of x.] So many more possibilities. In publishing, we talk about the importance of the white space.
It’s a lesson we all need to learn when it comes to silence. Always speaking out seems to be about “Me! Me! Me! I want to be heard! I want things to be my way!” Silence is about us, about relationship – both the I-you and the I-You (G”d) type. Yes, there is a time to speak up and speak out. Yet it is, in most situations, t is not all the time.
We live in a crazy, busy, fast-paced society. Sometimes, in order to feel like our voice is being heard, we feel like we have to speak out at the same time as others. And so we have all this babble. (Hmm, here’s another parallel…) There’s so much going on at once, we can’t comprehend it all, can’t remember it. If we don’t speak out at the exact moment when it is in our mind, we’ll forget it. So everybody is talking and no one is listening. No way to run a society. (How much truer are these words here in 2018 than when first written in 1999!)
And how much more so in this day and age need we keep our silence when listening for G”d? I’ve little doubt that G”d could make G”d’s self heard if that is what G”d wanted. After all, G”d gives this whole long diatribe through T’rumah and Tetzaveh! Yet even G”d knows that using the big. booming “voice of G”d” a lot might not be the best thing. When You’ve got a voice that loud, You really do need to keep silent, not even whisper, if You expect to hear the miniscule utterings of Your creations. So when done talking, G”d shuts up and listens. We’d do well to learn to be b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d, in that regard.
As the response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida played out, it was clear that the students had a lot to say, and were saying it quite loudly and persistently. How quickly the adults tried to “help them.” I and a small chorus of like-minded folks led a chorus of “adults-STFU and let the kids do their thing.” We created the mess they’re trying to fix. We allowed our country to be held hostage to the limited interests of a small segment of the population – perhaps even to the very limited set of adults heading the NRA.
As Linda Creed and Michael Masser wrote in 1985:
I believe the children are our are future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
As an educator, I live by these maxims:
Much wisdom I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, more from my pupils the most of all.
It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught. (Richard Rodgers)
Our youth may be able to accomplish what we grown-ups have been unable to do in the last 50 years! Let’s give them that chance.
Now, I feel compelled at this point to add (especially in light of last week’s musing that was about the present moment and not the parasha) that silence is not always the best response in every circumstance. We are living in circumstances that call upon us to stand firm, speak openly, even defiantly when necessary. Yet even in the midst of our being outspoken, being actively resisting, and calling “BS!” we ought to heed the lessons of Torah and think about how we need to find the right times and places for silence, for Shutting TFU. Our outbursts might be more effective if we punctuate them with the necessary “white space.”
It’s Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, when we read the maftir from Exodus 25:17-19:
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָֽרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל־הַנֶּֽחֱשָׁלִים אַֽחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִֽים: וְהָיָה בְּֽהָנִיחַֽ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ ׀ לְךָ מִכָּל־אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָֹה־אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַֽחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּֽח:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Look at those ever-confusing directions in Torah to utterly blot out the name of Amalek, yet never forget. If we can do that- if we can hold that tension, as we do some many others in Judaism – then surely we can find the balance between knowing when to speak out and knowing when to STFU.
Moshe, and, I presume, the whole of Israel, stood quietly and listened to God’s entire discourse through T’rumah and Tetzaveh. It’s an example we could do well to follow these days. For only through our own silence will we be truly able to hear what others are saying, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll also be able to hear that kol d’mamah dakah, that still small voice. Unlike so many who have abandoned any hope that G”d still interacts with us, I still believe. Maybe if I, if we all, could just STFU, or more politely “shut up and listen” we might have that faith rewarded. Ken y’hi ratson. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu.
To each and every one of you, a quiet Shabbat of listening.
©2018 (portions ©1999 and 2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Tetzaveh 5777 – A Nation of Priests (and a Shtickel of Purim) Revised from 5770
Tetzaveh 5776 – House Guest (Redux and Revised 5763)
Tetzaveh 5775 – Aharon’s Bells (Revised)
Tetzaveh 5774 – It’s Not Urim or Thummim
Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim 5773 – Fighting Dirty
Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 – A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon’s Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn’t Smell Quite Right