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Shmot - Tetzaveh

Tetzaveh - you’ve got your hands full

This is the fashionista’s sedra - full of opulent, exquisite details about clothes. The fabrics, the colours, the trims. And everything has symbolism - not a thread or decorative pomegranate out of place.

But I’m not going to discuss clothes. Not directly anyway. Instead, what caught my attention was the line instructing Moshe to dress Aharon and his sons in the special clothing. Except Moshe himself isn’t mentioned. Tetzaveh is the first sedra since we met Moshe in Shemot in which he isn’t mentioned (and the only sedra until the end of the Torah where he isn’t named, save a few in Devarim where he speaks the whole time!) Moshe is the proverbial chopped liver.

וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ אֹתָם אֶת־אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ אֹתָם וּמִלֵּאתָ אֶת־יָדָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ אֹתָם וְכִהֲנוּ לִי׃

Put these on your brother Aaron and on his sons as well; anoint them, and ordain them and fill their hands, and consecrate them to serve Me as priests.

What caught my eye was the wording “and fill their hands”. Translated by JPS as “ordain them” and Everett Fox as “give mandate to them”, the literal Hebrew is intriguing. Rashi talks about an old French glove-transfer ceremony, which the Ramban mocks with classy rabbinic insults “empty talk!” Ramban’s own suggestion is a bit deeper, seeing the word “filling” as about perfection, and “hands” as referring to work.

So for Ramban “fill their hands” means - get them ready to do fulfilling and perfect work.

Moshe, not mentioned by name in this sedra, also has a history with his “yadaiim”, his hands. He hits and kills the Egyptian, his staff performs miracles and plagues and splits the sea, his arms held in the air in battle ensure military success, and he fatally strikes the rock. Moshe’s actions are spontaneous, in singular moments, sometimes successful, sometimes missing the mark.

The Midrash in Shmot Rabba suggests that it was Moshe who was originally supposed to be the Cohen Gadol - the High Priest. However, at the Burning Bush, Moshe protested that he did not want to lead the Israelites. God was angry and took the priesthood away from him leaving us with the dual “handiwork” modes of the priest and the prophet.

So now Moshe is not mentioned - the filling of hands is passed over to his brother and Moshe is the one doing the dressing. Perhaps God here is favouring a more ordered, ritualised kind of work, compared with Moshe’s instinct-driven handiwork.

While we can have empathy with Moshe as we imagine this scene, we know that Moshe will retain a closeness with God that nobody, even Aaron, will ever achieve. Moshe has his own mandate (to use Everett Fox’s clever word play - “manus” is Latin for hand, force or power).

So what kind of work will fill our hands? Will it contribute towards a more holy world? And if so - more like Aaron’s work or Moshe’s - will it be ordered, controlled and systematic or intuitive, embodied and impulsive?

I’ll end with a line from Tehillim 90:17, which is crops up in our siddur “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us;

let the work of our hands prosper,

O prosper the work of our hands!”


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