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The Anonymous Essence


And Moses returned to G-d and said: “I beseech You: this nation has sinned a great sin, and have made themselves a god of gold. Now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if You will not, erase me from the book that You have written.”

And G-d said to Moses: “Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book.”

Exodus 32:31-33

No human being is as deeply identified with the Torah as Moses: the prophet goes so far as to refer to the revealed wisdom of G-d as “The Torah of My servant Moses.”[1]  As the Midrash explains, “Because he gave his life for it, it is called by his name.”[2]

And yet, there was one thing that was even more important to Moses than his connection with the Torah: his connection with the people of Israel. In order to secure G-d’s forgiveness of Israel for their sin in worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses was prepared to forgo his place in the Torah. Following Israel’s transgression, Moses gave G-d an “ultimatum”: if You cannot forgive them, obliterate my name from the book that You have written.

Beyond the Word

Our sages tell us that “the righteous emulate their Creator.”[3] The same is true in this case: in giving precedence to Israel over Torah, Moses was following the divine example. As the Midrash states, “Two things preceded G-d’s creation of the world: Torah and Israel. Still, I do not know which preceded which. But when Torah states ‘Speak to the children of Israel…,’ ‘Command the children of Israel…’—I know that Israel preceded all.”[4]

In other words, since G-d’s purpose in His creation of the universe is that the people of Israel should implement His will as outlined in the Torah, the concepts of “Torah” and “Israel”  both precede the concept of a “world” in the Creator’s “mind.” Yet which is the more deeply rooted idea within the divine consciousness, Torah or Israel? Does Israel exist in order that the Torah might be implemented, or does the Torah exist in order to serve the Jew in the fulfillment of his mission and the realization of his relationship with G-d? Says the Midrash: if the Torah describes itself as a communication to Israel, this presumes the concept of Israel as primary to that of Torah. The very idea of a Torah was conceived by the divine mind as a tool to enhance the bond between G-d and His people—a bond that “predates” it and which it comes to serve.

Thus our sages have said: “A Jew, though he has sinned, is still a Jew.”[5]Even if the Jew sins, thereby violating his relationship with G-d as defined by Torah, he is still a Jew. For the essence of his relationship with G-d runs deeper than that aspect of it that is realized through his fulfillment of the divine will as formulated in the Torah.

Therein lies the deeper significance of Moses’ declaration to G-d, “…if You will not [forgive them], erase me from the book that You have written,” and G-d’s response, “Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book.” At first glance, Moses’ words, dramatic and moving as they are, are very puzzling: other than its dubious value as some sort of “threat” to G-d (?!), how would Moses’ eradication from the Torah (G-d forbid) help the people of Israel attain atonement for their sin?

G-d’s reply also requires explanation. G-d seems to be rejecting Moses’ plea, saying, in effect, “I will do what I see fit with My Torah. You are in; they go out.” But that is not what G-d does. He forgives the Jewish people and gives them a second set of tablets engraved by His hand with the Ten Commandments to replace those broken as a result of their sin. Moses’ words have their desired effect: the Jewish people are rehabilitated, and their place in Torah is preserved, even enhanced.[6]

But according to what we said above, we can understand the deeper stratum of meaning implicit in their exchange. True, Moses is saying to G-d, Your people have sinned a great sin. A sin so great, a sin that so acutely violates Your relationship with them as formulated in Your “marriage contract”[7] with them, the Torah, that in terms of this relationship, their betrayal is unpardonable. But Your bond with them runs deeper than Torah, deeper than anything that can be expressed or destroyed by their deeds. If You cannot forgive them, it is because You are continuing to relate to them on Torah’s terms, continuing to define Your bond with them on a level on which their sin cannot be tolerated.

Well, said Moses, I, for one, will not accept such  a state of affairs. If there is no way that Torah allows for their forgiveness, then erase me from the Torah. Cut me out of the very thing that has consumed my mind, heart and life so completely that the book that You have written has come to be called “the Torah of Moses.” Strip me of my very identity, so that I shall stand denuded of all save my very essence—my relationship with my people.

Now it was the Creator who emulated the righteous. “Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book,” G-d promised. Those whom Torah cannot forgive, those with whom I can no longer sustain the relationship delineated by My book, I will exempt from My book. I will transcend My Torah to revert to the quintessential bond between them and Myself that precedes and supersedes My word, wisdom and will. I will follow your example, Moses, you who are prepared to relinquish everything you have and are, should it interfere with your most quintessential priority: your oneness with your people.

Ultimately, Israel’s “erasure” from the Torah resulted not in a diminution, G-d forbid, of their Torah-defined relationship with the Almighty, but, on the contrary, in its reinforcement and intensification. For once the quintessential bond between G-d and Israel had been reiterated, this selfsame relationship could now be manifested via the vehicle of Torah, which would now be “broadened” to accommodate that which earlier was beyond its realm. Torah would now incorporate the highest level of teshuvah (“return”)—the level on which “sins are transformed into virtues”[8] and the greatest failing and the most terrible betrayal can be sublimated into even greater achievement and even deeper connection.

In the words of our sages, “The First Tablets contained only the Ten Commandments. The Second Tablets contained also Halachah, Midrash and Aggadah.”[9] “Had Israel not sinned with the Golden Calf, they would have received only the five books of Moses and the book of Joshua. Why? Because, as the verse says, ‘Much[10] wisdom comes through much grief.’”[11]

The same is true regarding Moses: his readiness to divest himself, G-d forbid, of his identity as the vehicle through whom G-d communicated His Torah to man, actually resulted in a deepening of his identification with Torah, as we shall see.


Given the centrality of Moses’ role to the transmission of Torah to humanity, it comes as no surprise that his name is mentioned, often as much as several dozen times, in every single parshah (section) of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.[12]

Every parshah, that is, but one. The single exception is the parshah of Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), in which the word “Moses” does not appear.  Most amazingly, Tetzaveh is the section that, by rights, should be most saturated with Moses’ name: in the annual Torah-reading cycle,Tetzaveh is almost always read either on the Shabbat preceding the 7th of Adar or on the Shabbat that follows it. Adar 7 is the day most closely related to the life of Moses, as it is both the date of his birth (in the year 2368 from Creation—1393 BCE), and the date of his passing (2488—1273 BCE).[13]

In his commentary on Torah, the Baal haTurim [14] explains this omission as the result of Moses’ words, “erase me from the book that You have written.” Our sages have said that the words of a tzaddik, even when expressed conditionally, always have an effect.[15] So once Moses uttered these fateful words, they were destined to somehow be realized. Thus, concludes the Baal haTurim , even after G-d forgave the Jewish people and the conditions for Moses’ proclamation no longer applied, there remains one section of the Torah devoid of his name.[16]

But upon closer examination, Moses is hardly absent from the section of Tetzaveh—indeed, he is more profoundly present there than any mention of his name could possibly express. Tetzaveh consists entirely of G-d’s ongoing communication to Moses, instructing him with the details of the menorah-lighting in the Sanctuary, the construction of the priestly garments, and the Sanctuary’s inauguration. All that is missing is the customary “G-d spoke to Moses, saying…” that precedes the divine directives in the rest of the Torah. Thus, Tetzaveh begins almost in mid-sentence: “And you [Moses] shall command the children of Israel to bring you pure olive oil, crushed for illumination, to light up a constant lamp….”

On the surface, there is a diminution of Moses’ presence—his name does not appear in the entire parshah. But he is the subject of its first word,v’atah, “and you”—a word that is a truer and deeper reference to Moses than his name. A name, after all, is something that is given to a person, something appended to an already existent being (in Moses’ case, the name “Moses” was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter when he was more than three months old); “you,” on the other hand, is a reference to the person himself. Thus, a person’s “name” represents his manifest self— his intellect and character, his communicable thoughts and feelings—while the abstract “you” refers to his anonymous essence, anonymous because it is too sublime and ethereal to be articulated.[17] Tetzaveh is thus the parshah in Torah that embodies the “you” of Moses, his transcendent essence.

This is fully in keeping with the Baal haTurim’s explanation that Moses’ anonymity in Tetzaveh is the result of his expressing the possibility that he be erased from G-d’s book. Moses was prepared to forgo his place in Torah because his bond with his people was on the level of his “you,” his truest, most quintessential self—a self even deeper than his connection to the Torah. In effect, Moses actually did obliterate his “name”—his identification with Torah—in order to be one with his people. As a result, G-d, too, was moved to forgo His insistence on relating to His people on the “name” level—i.e., on Torah’s terms[18]—and to reaffirm His quintessential bond with them. This was followed by a renewed giving of the Torah in which this deeper bond could also be “named” and expressed. Nevertheless, even after Moses’ and Israel’s identity were re-grounded in Torah, there remains one parshah—the parshah most intimately related to Moses—in which his anonymous essence reigns supreme, unencumbered by name and name-defined identity. Tetzaveh stands as an eternal tribute to Moses, as the Torah’s own testimony to his greatness in relinquishing everything, including his bond with Torah, in order to preserve his bond with his people and restore them to their G-d.

Moses Today

The “Mosesless” section of Tetzaveh attests to Moses’ self-sacrifice for his people, and is an example and lesson for every leader of Israel. It is also of eternal relevance to each and every one of us.

We all sense that beyond our expressed self lies a deeper, more intimate self—thoughts, feelings, convictions and potentials that are too sublime to articulate to others, or even to our own conscious self. But what effect does this deeper self have upon our actual behavior and accomplishments? Does it remain in a “seventh heaven” of abstraction, or can it somehow be made to impact our daily lives? We know that Moses, in his greatest moment, touched this purest core of self. But Moses was the most perfect human being to ever walk the face of earth;[19] what do his achievements imply to us?

The Talmud cites the verse “And now, Israel, what does G-d want of you? Only that you be in awe of G-d…,”[20] and asks: “Is awe of G-d a minor thing?” The answer given is: “Yes, for Moses it is a minor thing.”[21] But G-d’s request is addressed to all of Israel. How does Moses’ capacity for the awe of G-d answer the question?

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains:

“Each and every soul of the house of Israel contains within it something of the quality of our teacher Moses, for he is one of the ‘seven shepherds’ who feed vitality and G-dliness to the community of the souls of Israel… Moses is the sum of them all, called the ‘shepherd of faith’[22] in the sense that he nourishes the community of Israel with the knowledge and recognition of G-d.”[23]

Indeed, it was Moses’ uncompromising identification with his people, no matter to what depths they might have fallen, that ensured that each and every Jew, regardless of his spiritual station and moral circumstances, possesses, and can readily access, the “Moses” within him—his quintessential source of faith and oneness with his Creator.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Shabbat Tetzaveh 5740 and 5751 (March 1, 1980; February 23, 1991)[24] and on other occasions

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Malachi 3:22. Cf. “The Five Books of Moses.”

[2].  Mechilta Beshalach 15:1.

[3] Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 67:8.

[4]. Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah, ch. 14.

[5].Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a.

[6]. See the passages from Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 46:1 and Talmud, Nedarim 22b, quoted below.

[7]. See Talmud, Berachot 57a on Deuteronomy 33:4; Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 30; Rashi, Exodus 34:1.

[8].Talmud, Yoma 86b.

[9]. Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 46:1.

[10]. Ecclesiastes 1:18.

[11]. Talmud, Nedarim 22b. As Chassidic teaching explains, the “Oral Torah” —the dimension to Torah that was added in the wake of Israel’s sin, G-d’s forgiveness, and re-issue of Torah in its “broadened” form —is synonymous with the concept of teshuvah, as it employs the doubt, contradiction and refuted assumptions that are part of every intellectual discourse (and reach their height in the pilpul of the Babylonian Talmud) to achieve an even deeper appreciation of a truth than is possible by the more “tranquil” approach of faith and tradition (see Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah 5666, pp. 85-93; Sefer HaMaamarim Melukat, vol. I, pp. 364-370; et al.).

[12]. The first of the Five Books of the Torah, Genesis, relates events that occurred before Moses’ birth. The fifth book, Deuteronomy, consists wholly of Moses’ words to the people of Israel before his passing.

[13]. Cf. Shaloh, introduction to Parshat Vayeishev: “ ‘To everything there is its season, the appointed time for each purpose’ (Ecclesisates 3:1). Certainly, the arrangements of the festivals and days of commemoration of the year, both the [biblical] ‘seasons of G-d’ and those rabbinically ordained … all have a connection to the [weekly] parshah in which they fall, for all is arranged by the hand of G-d.”

[14]. Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 1268-1340.

[15]. Talmud, Makot 11a.

[16]. Baal HaTurim on Exodus 27:20.

[17]. Our sages have said that a person’s name is the conduit of his life, the channel that carries the flow of vitality from his soul to his body (Shaar haGilgulim, Hakdamah 23, et al.). But this itself indicates that it is secondary to the person’s very essence, as “the soul, prior to its entry into the body, has no name whatsoever (Likkutei Torah, Behar 41c).

[18]. “The entire Torah is names of G-d” (Nachmanides’ introduction to his commentary on Torah).

[19]. Maimonides’ introduction to chapter Chelek, principle 7.

[20]. Deuteronomy 10:12.

[21]. Talmud, Berachot 33b.

[22] Raaya mehemna, usually translated “faithful shepherd”; here Rabbi Schneur Zalman renders it “shepherd of faith,” in the sense that Moses is Israel’s conduit of faith, the one who inculcates them with their quintessential  recognition of G-d as a shepherd who feeds his flocks their vital needs.

[23]. Tanya, ch. 42.

[24]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXI, pp. 173-180; Sefer haSichot 5751, pp. 352-358.


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