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The Hidden Light: Parashat Tetzaveh – A Critical Ingredient of Jewish Leadership

Excerpted from Jerry Hochbaum’s The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms for Leadership, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers

A Critical Ingredient of Jewish Leadership

Parashat Tetzaveh is unique in one very unusual respect: Moshe’s name is omitted from its entire text. Everywhere else in the Torah we read, “Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe,” God calls out to Moshe to do something or say something. A vital ingredient of Moshe’s leadership is revealed by this omission in Tetzaveh.

The commentaries provide a multitude of explanations concerning this matter. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, for example, offers a creative insight that touches on one of the major qualities required of leaders, especially Jewish religious ones. At Sinai, God reveals the Torah to the Jewish people. Moshe, His emissary in this enterprise, is instructed to transmit that revelation to the Jewish people completely intact, exactly as it has been revealed to him. Moshe is the messenger, not the message in any form or manner. He may not convey the Torah in any other fashion – “oisgeticht un oisgebessert,” as they say in Yiddish – not reformulated, reinterpreted, or better presented than the original transmission. A sliver of ego here can either dilute or even deconstruct both the message and the messenger’s mission. Ego among leaders, however subtle, unless kept under strict control, can lead to self-aggrandizement at the cost of distorting the message.

Moshe fully recognizes his own special capacities and genius, as great men usually do. But the Torah lauds him solely for his modesty, his greatest attribute as leader of the Jewish people. It is spiritual accomplishments, not public kudos, to which great moral leaders aspire. Those accomplishments, even if not immediately visible or attributed to them, reward them with true  fulfillment.

In Parashat Pekudei, the Torah describes the completion of the construction of the Tabernacle. “Vatekhel kol avodat Mishkan Ohel Mo’ed,” all the work of the Mishkan has now been completed. This sentence describes its completion in the most passive manner. It has been completed as if by itself in some miraculous manner. But the Torah quickly adds, to offset Moshe’s invisibility in Parashat Tetzaveh, that it happens because “k’khol asher tzivah Hashem et Moshe ken asu,” Moshe acts as he was instructed, without engaging in or promoting his own person. That is one of the major requisites of great leadership.

Here is a second pertinent example: the Torah relates that after the akeidah, the final and most demanding test Avraham confronted, “v’Avraham shav limkomo,” Avraham returned to his former place, with no press conference, TV appearances, or magazine articles lauding his and his son’s courage and devotion. The action completed, Avraham moves along to the next challenge in the continual evolution of his patriarchy of the Jewish people.

Another story illustrates this quality even in our time, in a much less exalted situation. When the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island was completed, a massive celebration was organized in Brooklyn. All the important political and communal leaders of New York City and the state were invited. The bridge was a major engineering feat and an outstanding accomplishment aesthetically. All the politicians who spoke there elaborated in great detail their role in making it happen.

The only one not invited to speak was the leading engineer who had conceived and supervised its construction. A reporter noted this, and queried him about how he felt about his failure to be recognized. The engineer responded in a most straightforward fashion. He said that every time he viewed the bridge, he looked up at it with great admiration. He, of course, knew who built it, despite what the politicians were saying. And that was enough for him.

May this contemporary reflection of the quality of the leadership of our greatest leader, Moshe, go from that engineer’s mouth to the ears of some of the current crop of the lesser leaders of both our American society and the Jewish community.