The Missing Person
By Rabbi Jack Riemer
There is a person missing in this Torah reading. He is found in every portion of the Torah starting with Exodus, except for this one.
Do you know who it is?
Moses. Let me share with you a fascinating explanation as to why the name of Moses does not appear in this portion. A classical rabbinic commentary (which I will paraphrase here) says that when God was angry at the people of Israel for having made the golden calf, God vowed to destroy them. Moses pleaded on their behalf, and he said: If You destroy them, then destroy me too, for I cannot live without them. The words Moses used were: “If You wipe them out, then wipe me out of Your book”.
God said, “Really? Could you bear to be left out of the book that is destined to become the most read book in all of human history, the book that will be translated into every language on earth?”
Moses said: “Try me,” and so God took the name of Moses out of this one Torah portion. And Moses went on working just as faithfully, even though his name was not mentioned. And God was so impressed by that that he forgave the Jewish people.
I love this Midrash because it speaks so directly to the world in which we live. We live in a world that is addicted to publicity.
Every institution, every organization, every political party depends on its public relations experts. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg once quipped that we live in a world in which “if it is in the Times, then it happened, whether it happened or not; if it is not in the Times, then it didn’t happen, whether it happened or not.”
We live in a world in which if you want to give a sermon on the importance of humility, you must first elbow your way to the microphone, and make sure that the media is alerted to what you are going to say. Otherwise, your words will simply not be noticed.
All of us have become obsessed with the importance of public relations. And we forget the spiritual price that we pay for being so obsessed with our image, and so concerned with our reputation. How can one maintain one’s modesty in a society that demands self-promotion and that requires a never-ending chase for media attention?
Moses’s example of being willing to work anonymously, if he had to, in order to benefit the cause that he felt was bigger and more important than he was, speaks directly to our time and to our spiritual situation.
It is only one small word that is missing in the Text, but the rabbis derived a big lesson from it, one that all of us should take to heart. Moses let his name be omitted so that his people would survive. May we learn from his example.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.