Thirty times does Aaron’s name appear in this week’s Torah portion, while the name Moses is completely absent, except by inference three times using the second person pronoun “You.” Moses’ absence is explained by commentators in a number of ways, and this one (my favorite) is found in a famous midrash emphasizing Moses’ selflessness in defense of the people at the sin of the golden calf.
As God prepared to destroy the people, Moses told the Almighty that he ought to be destroyed too and that God should remove him from his “Book” because he, Moses, could not live without his people.
God appealed to his prophet, “Could you really stand to have your name taken out of this Book?”
“Yes, if it would save my people.”
So God took the name of Moses out of this one sidra to test whether Moses could stand it or not. Moses passed the test, continued working, and God, seeing that his prophet was resolute, selfless and sincere, relented and forgave the people of their greatest sin.
Regardless of the actual reason that Moses’ name is missing completely in this parashah, the emphasis this week is on Aaron as High Priest and not on Moses as prophetic leader, thus giving us an opportunity to reflect on the unique nature of Aaron’s exalted role.
The brothers represent, in truth, two distinct and different kinds of leadership; one as charismatic prophet and the other as an institution-bound High Priest.
Moses needs no special clothing or external signs to establish himself as leader. Aaron wears the “sacral vestments” thereby defining him in his priestly dignity.
Though loved by the people, Aaron’s leadership is encumbered by institutional constraints. Contained, measured, conservative, conventional, and non-reactive, Aaron’s priestly world changes slowly, if at all. Ritual defines time and occasion. Disorder is shunned, chaos anathema, the breaking of rules unacceptable.
Moses, despite his role as lawgiver and chief magistrate, is by nature and temperament Aaron’s opposite. Windswept and inspirational, the prophet reaches for the stars and communes with God. Consumed in divine light, he is a dreamer who establishes a new world order by smashing the past’s idols. He ventures alone into the desert, his hair and beard turned white and he transcends human convention.
Society needs both a Moses and an Aaron, prophet and priest, the yin and yang of ancient Biblical life. Without Aaron there would be little stability and societal order, and public life would succumb to the worst excesses in the human condition. Without Moses’ prophetic zeal, there would be little vision and hope for change towards a more inspired and just social order.
One important lesson for us as we reflect on how Moses and Aaron complemented one another is that shared leadership and multiple leadership styles are preferable over the leadership of the one. A division of power not only prevents the principle leader from experiencing burn-out, as Jethro taught his son-in law in Exodus 18, but decentralization of responsibility creates a system of checks and balances that can contain zealotry, prevent rigidity and enable progress.
The three times in this portion when God actually addresses Moses with the pronoun “you” we glimpse three specific modes in which the wise leader ought to respond to the needs of the community.
The first comes at the beginning of the portion; “V’atah t’zaveh et b’nai Yisrael… – You shall command the children of Israel…” (Exodus 27:20)
Here we see that a strong leader must be confident enough to command (i.e. take control) when necessary. However, if he does so constantly and in every instance he runs the risk of straining his authority and losing his followers.
The second time God addresses Moses is in the next chapter – “V’atah hakrev eleicha et Aharon achicha v’et banav ito mitoch bnei Ysirael l’chahano li… – You shall bring close to you Aaron your brother and his sons with you into the midst of the children of Israel…”. (Exodus 28:1)
In this instance we see that the leader ought to undergo a selfless act of tzimzum (contraction) and delegate responsibilities to others. Even as the leader contracts, however, he enables by contraction to draw others closer to him thus maintaining authority.
And the final instance in which God addresses Moses is “V’atah t’dabeir et kol chochmei lev asher mileitiv ruach chocham… – And you shall speak to all those wise in heart and filled with the spirit of wisdom…” (Exodus 28:3).
The leader has to presume wisdom in others, and that dialogue and persuasion are necessary in bringing everyone along to desired ends.
Moses’ and Aaron’s examples suggest that great leadership requires not just vision and moral rectitude, but love of truth, love of humanity, wisdom, humility, respect for the dignity of every individual, and a commitment to enhance the common good.