Monday, March 06, 2006

On Tetzaveh

Hey, if Ephraim can write this stuff, why can't I? (Because he knows what he's talking about and I don't, you say? Well, harrumph.)

A popular question about parshat Tetzaveh is why Moses's name does not appear anywhere in the parsha, a phenomenon unique among all parshiyot of the Torah except those of the book of Genesis, where you wouldn't expect to find Moses's name, since he was only born in parshat Shemot. I've always wondered how legitimate this question is, considering that God did not divide the Torah into our parshiyot: those divisions are rabbinic in origin, and of a later vintage, and so the absence of Moses's name in Tetzaveh could be a purely coincidental by-product of the fact that the rabbis who made our divisions judged Tetzaveh to be the right size for an independent portion. Indeed, there have been a variety of different ways of dividing the Torah into different weekly portions: in some places, in some periods of history, for example, the Torah was divided up in such a way that it took three years to complete. Obviously, the parshiyot in this system were on average only about one-third the size of ours, and I would not be at all surprised if there were several such post-Bereishit parshiyot in which Moses's name did not appear. If we followed that system today, I doubt this question - about Moses's absence - would be asked at all.

However, many scholars have evidently accepted the question as valid, presumably on the assumption that either (a) the rabbis who came up with our division intentionally divided things up so that Moses's name would not appear in Tetzaveh; or (b) God intentionally wrote the Torah in such a way that when the rabbis created our division, they would find natural a division in which one parsha would contain no mention of Moses's name; or (c) God manipulated the minds of the rabbis who created our division so that they would create a "Moses"-less Tetzaveh.

The standard answer given to the question of why Moses's name does not appear in Tetzaveh is that of the Ba'al Haturim (Exodus 27:20, s.v. "Ve'atah tetzaveh"): the Gemara says that a wise man's curse is fulfilled even if the curse was conditional and the condition was not satisfied (Makkot 11a). Moses, when pleading that the Jews be forgiven after the sin of the golden calf, said to God, "If [you do] not [forgive them], then erase me from your book that you have written" (Exodus 32:32). Moses was thereby conditionally cursing himself to be erased from the Torah, and even though the condition was not satisfied - God did forgive the Jews - the curse was still fulfilled, at least to the extent that Moses's name was wiped out of one parsha - Tetzaveh.

My questions on this explanation are the following: (1) The Gemara doesn't say that a wise man's conditional curse is sort of fulfilled even if the condition is not satisfied. How is the erasure of Moses's name from parshat Tetzaveh a fulfillment of his curse? That's not what he said! (2) Why Tetzaveh, as opposed to any other parsha or set of parshiyot? (The Ba'al Haturim does offer an explanation as to why specifically Tetzaveh does not contain Moses's name, but I'll bet you could make equally compelling arguments for several other parshiyot.)

I have a suggestion about Moses's self-curse which does not explain why his name is absent from Tetzaveh (as discussed, I'm not sure that's a problem), but does, I think, better reflect the words of the Gemara at Makkot 11a.

Moses, as you all know, was named "Moshe" by the daughter of Pharaoh, who found him floating in a little boat on the Nile (Exodus 2:5-10). His mother, Yocheved, had presumably named him something else: he was three months old by the time she set him afloat (Exodus 2:2) - well old enough to have been named. What was Moses's real name - the one given to him by his Israelite mother?

Furthermore, I question whether Pharaoh's daughter really gave Moses the name "Moshe". From Exodus 2:10 it seems pretty clear that "Moshe" is a name derived from a Hebrew verb. What are the odds that Pharaoh's daughter spoke Hebrew? I propose that Moses was given a name that might have sounded nothing like "Moshe", but meant in Egyptian approximately what "Moshe" means in Hebrew, and that the Torah simply translates all of the words of Pharaoh's daughter, including the name she gave Moses and her explanation of its meaning, from the original Egyptian into Hebrew. What did his real Egyptian name sound like? No idea.

I imagine you can see where I'm going with this. The real, Hebrew name that Moses presumably had - the one given to him by Yocheved (or possibly Amram) - is never mentioned in the Torah. Neither, perhaps, is the one the daughter of Pharaoh gave him. What is the only "name" we have for Moses in the Torah? "Moshe" - something he may never in his life have been called; not his name. It may thus really be that Moses's name was completely erased from the Torah, as per his self-curse.

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