Purim A Missing Moses – A Missing God – A Missing Spring
Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
Every year at this time, I read Spring for Sophie, a wonderful children’s book by my friend and classmate Yael Waeber. The book follows the emotional and sensory journey of a young girl eager for the end of winter. Sophie’s mother helps her to notice—with her eyes, ears, nose, fingers, and tongue—the slow transformation of the season. I love the book for its mindful approach to life and its reminder to carefully notice and bless change. However, my favorite part of the book is Sophie’s growing impatience! The closer spring comes, the greater is Sophie’s frustration over still chilly days and frigid fingers. Spring for Sophie describes a season of waiting that embraces hope, doubt and absence.
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, presents a complementary meditation on waiting for a precious return. The text, located near the end of the book of Exodus, consists of a series of commandments for the construction of sacred instruments and clothing related to the cultic service. The medieval Spanish commentator, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (also known as the Ba’al ha-Turim), notices a startling absence in the parashah (Torah portion). The usual formula for introducing a series of commandments, “And God spoke to Moses,” is replaced with “You shall command.” Moses’ name disappears. This pattern continues throughout the reading. For the first time since his introduction at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, Moses’ name is not mentioned explicitly in the text.
Each year, the confluence of late winter and this absence of Moses’ name converge in me to arouse a worry. I find myself asking two questions:
- When will spring come?
- When will Moses return?
Even after decades of observing the return of both, I walk about with similar anxiety.
In the face of my worry, the Torah offers much the same advice as Spring for Sophie: be patient and use your senses. In the first verse of our reading, God commands the people of Israel to collect oil for a light that will always burn in the Tabernacle. I like to read these words as a commandment to carry a little searchlight that can help us to look out for Moses’ reappearance, evidence of the return of prophetic leadership and of spring.
As we hold Moses’ absence in this week’s parashah, we prepare for an even greater absence looming in the Jewish calendar. Next week, we will read Megillat Esther, the bible’s rendering of the Purim story. As we read the Megillah, one character will be notably missing: God. The heroes of the Purim story, Esther and Mordecai, are not guided by God’s voice nor do they and their people experience anything like the miracles of the Exodus. In the case of the arrival of spring, in the case of Moses’ return to the biblical narrative, some part of us is still confident that all will be warm and whole. In the Book of Esther this certainty dissipates; while the experienced reader knows that the Esther’s community will survive Haman’s fury, we are left wondering whether God will return. What does this story of God’s absence teach us about Jewish history and the fate of any person or group in search of God?
Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, a 20th-century thinker and leader, beautifully visualizes this sense of doubt. In an essay on Purim, Rabbi Hutner introduces a parable of a night guard who uses a flickering candle to identify their fellow. Hutner suggests that instances of explicit divine intervention in human history, like the redemption of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage, are examples of the vision and warmth the candle offers the night watcher.
But Rabbi Hutner’s parable has a second part. Again, we meet the night guard in search of their friend, but this time the candle has gone out. Without the benefit of the light, the watcher must use their other senses to find the companion. This scene, Hutner writes, describes the redemption of Purim. Without the benefit of clear prophecy or supernatural intervention, Mordecai and Esther must grope for redemption. In this state of darkness, they are left to grasp after the form and sniff after the scent of liberation.
Sometimes, we are blessed to exist in the first of Rabbi Hutner’s realities. We are able to hold on to an external light, the voice of a parent or a friend—or of God—telling us to be patient, to use our eyes to search for the return of spring, of personal or collective redemption. However, so often, we stand like Mordecai and Esther, without a light to guide us. We must depend on our noses, ears, and fingertips, seeking out our future in the darkness. This seeking can be scary and lonely, but, if we believe Hutner’s parable, it might also be liberatory. We can wrestle against the dark, against the “Hamans” in our lives (internal or external) by remaining vigilant to the crack of the softened ground, to the singing of birds, and to the blooming of snowdrops. If we are lucky and aware, we can “sense into creation” the spring of our liberation.
Joey Glick is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.