What was Moses’s finest hour? Receiving the Torah? Leading the Jews out of Egypt? Splitting the Sea? Would you be shocked if I told you that it was none of the above?
This week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, has a dubious distinction. It is the only reading in the Torah from the moment Moses was born until his passing in which his name is not mentioned.
The opening words are v’atah tetzaveh—and you shall command. The you is Moses and God is telling him to instruct the Jewish people. But the verse only says “you”—no name, no Moses, a “no-name brand.”
Some explain that Moses’s yahrtzeit, 7 Adar, almost always occurs in this week. Thus, the absence of his name is an appropriate symbol of his demise.
Others suggest that it is because of Moses’s own words. Remember the Golden Calf episode? The people had sinned and God was going to wipe them out and start over again with Moses and his own dynasty. Moses defended his errant flock before the Almighty, arguing for their forgiveness.
And if they are not forgiven? Well, Moses used some extraordinarily strong words: Micheini nah misifrecha asher katavta—erase me from your book that you have written. Moses himself said his name should be erased from the Torah if God would not forgive his people.
Even though God did forgive them, the words of a tzaddik are eternal and leave an impression. The effect of those words was that somewhere in the Torah, Moses’s name would be erased. Moses will be missing from where he normally should have appeared. This is why, in the week we remember his passing, Moses’s name is gone.
So say a variety of commentaries. But there is a deeper dimension too. What’s in a name? Does a person really need a name? Not really. He knows who he is. So, a name is essentially for other people. They can use it to get his attention, call him, address him and so on.
In other words, a name is only an external handle, a way for others to identify or describe a person. But it is outside the person himself and peripheral to his true inner identity. Names are secondary to the essence of an individual, which is beyond any name or superficial title.
So why is Moses’s name not mentioned? Because he said “erase me” at the Golden Calf? Because he spoke with chutzpah before the Almighty? Is it a punishment? Not at all, says the Lubavitcher Rebbe. On the contrary, this was perhaps the greatest moment in the life of our greatest spiritual leader.
Moses’s finest hour was when he stood his ground before God, pleading for his people and fighting for their forgiveness. It was when he put his own life and future on the line and said, God, if they go, I go! If you refuse to forgive these sinners, then erase my name from your holy Torah!
It was through Moses’s total commitment to his people that the faithful shepherd saved his flock from extinction. And God Himself was actually pleased with His chosen shepherd’s words and acceded to his request.
Is that something to be ashamed of? Far from it. It is something to be immensely proud of. It serves as a shining example of what true leadership is all about. It is dedication and sacrifice, not power and honor.
So, the absence of Moses’s name this week, far from being a negative, carries with it a profound blessing. It does not say the name Moses, but v’atah—and you. A name is only a name, but here God talks to Moses in the second person directly: You. This you represents something far deeper than a mere name. It symbolizes the spiritual essence of Moses.
What is that essence? Mesiras nefesh—total commitment to his people, come what may, even at his own expense. This is the deepest core of Moses’s neshama, more profound than any appellation or detailed description could hope to portray.
Moses’s name may be missing, but his spiritual presence is felt in a way to which no name could ever do justice. May all our leaders take note and be inspired.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.
Adapted from a column originally published by Chabad.org/parshah.