The Sidra this week has an unusual beginning, which cannot be found anywhere else. The first word in it is VE’ATAH, which means ‘AND YOU’. This is the first of four occasions when God addressed Moses in this way in relation to the construction of the Tabernacle. The first three instances are all in close proximity, one following the other. We then find it once more in the next Sidra of Ki Tissa. This form of language is unique to this story.
Nachmanides explains the significance of this opening sentence as follows. The Almighty was asking Moses to be personally involved in four tasks. The first task was to instruct the princes to take the olive oil, which was available in the camp, and to bring it to him, so that he could inspect it and confirm that it was completely crushed, pure and suitable for use in the Menorah. The oil had to be crushed with a mortar, rather than in the oil press.
Moses’ second task, is found in chapter 28, verse 1. This was to request that Aaron and his four sons come to him in order that he could appoint them as priests. He would then issue instructions to have special vestments made for them.
Moses’ third task, which is described in verse 3, was to personally speak to the craftsmen and architects, who were charged with the construction of the Tabernacle. God was concerned that Moses should make these appointments and make the ultimate decision about who would carry out the construction in the best possible manner.
Moses’ fourth and final task, which we find in chapter 31 verse 12 was to warn the Israelites that, although the construction of the Tabernacle was a very important mitzvah, it was incumbent upon them to observe the Shabbat and cease from their work on that day. He taught them that Shabbat can never be set aside except when life is in danger.
The unusual opening of the Sidra and the absence of Moses’ name throughout the Sidra, has attracted several other comments. It is the only Sidra in all the last four books of the Torah that Moses’ name is not mentioned. It seems that the Almighty deliberately refrained from calling Moses by name. One famous explanation for this omission is that this Sidra is always read in public on the Shabbat which precedes Moses’ Yahrzeit, which occurs on the 7th of Adar. The absence of his name symbolises his disappearance from the world of the living. This explanation is classified as a REMEZ, which is the Hebrew word for ‘hint or allusion’. (This is one of the four methods of interpretation concealed in the term PARDES, which stands for P’SHAT, the straightforward meaning of the text; REMEZ, D’RASH, which stands for the deeper meaning of the text and SOD which is the Hebrew term for the mystical interpretations of the Torah).
Rabbi Shimon Sofer explains the omission in relation to Moses’ ultimatum to the Almighty; when he prayed, on behalf of his people, for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. In the course of his prayer, Moses demanded that God delete his name from the book that He had written, unless He forgave the people. Rabbi Sofer explains that Moses was rewarded for defending his people with such great courage and self-sacrifice. In effect, Moses was appointed the commander-in- chief, for just that occasion, rather than being the intermediary and transmitter of the divine law. He illustrates his comment with a parable. A king handed over the authority to govern and to legislate, to one of his ministers whom he loved and who excelled in his position. Similarly, God granted Moses extraordinary promotion. God said to him: “You will command”.
Pinchas Peli writes that this opening seems to emphasise the fact God told Moses that, from now on, he had to draw on his own resources of strength. Whether he liked being leader not – he was one. He had to realise that, although he was not being ordained, like his brother, Aaron, and his sons. Nevertheless, he was still the undisputed leader of the people of Israel. VE-ATTA! Signifies the following: you are you, just because you are you! You can and must act, not because of any office that you hold.
The Sidra focuses on the special garments which the high priest had to wear in the Tabernacle, during the service. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Natziv, who flourished in the 19th century, wrote a commentary called Ha’amek Davar. In it, he explains that the purpose of the special priestly garments was to make it easier for Aaron and his sons to lead a life of sanctity and separateness from ordinary people. Higher standards were expected from them, which was a most difficult challenge. The special clothes made it easier for them to remind the people that they had been appointed by God. They also protected them from being accused of arrogance and pride. The Torah says that the special clothes were intended LECHAVOD ULETIFE’ERET, which means to give honour to God and make the service in the Tabernacle a spectacular event.
The special priestly clothes emphasised the fact that Aaron’s function was completely different from that of Moses. His function was clearly defined. His tasks were regular and occurred, at the same time, on a daily basis. His responsibilities allowed him to act with great kindness, always. He became famous for his ability to make peace between people. By contrast, Moses was the leader. He was unique. He prophesied in accordance with the needs of the hour. There were times when he had to act with great speed and ruthlessly and without any compromise. After the sin of the golden calf, for example, he was forced to exact severe punishment and to order that the perpetrators of the crime be executed. It was his responsibility to restore order in the camp. But there were many other occasions when he displayed great compassion, patience and love for his people.