Moses’ Major Regret


‘And [Moses] brought near the second ram, the consecration-inauguration ram, and Aaron and his sons leaned their hands upon the head of the ram. And [Moses] slaughtered it” [Leviticus 8:22-23].

That simple phrase, “and he slaughtered it,” is one of the most poignant and moving phrases of the entire Torah, illuminating the purpose of the Kohen-High Priest (Aaron) in contrast to the prophet (Moses). The secret to understanding Moses’ tragedy and Aaron’s gift lies in the nuances of a rare cantillation “trope.” The trope provides the musical notations to the Torah, telling the Torah reader such things as when to pause (as in a comma), when to stop (at the end of a verse), when to sound decisive, or when to strike a high note. None of the tropes are as distinctive, or as lengthy, as the shalshelet. It appears only four times in the Torah, usually connoting the drama of hesitancy and apprehension.

A shalshelet appears above the letter “het” in “vayishhat” — “and he (Moses) slaughtered.”

When Joseph is alone with Madame Potiphar [Genesis 39:8] and she attempts to seduce him, he refuses (“vayi’ma’en”). He is lonely, a stranger in a strange land, rejected by his family, needy for even a fleeting moment of warmth and physical connection. He is mindful of how his father would view such an act of adultery, and yet aware that refusal could cause this powerful woman to destroy him. The lengthy and meandering shalshelet atop the alef in va’yi’ma’en suggests all of the conflicting complexities within Joseph’s refusal.

But what is complex about slaughtering a ram? Why does the evocative and dramatic shalshelet appear in our verse describing the consecration of Aaron and his sons? To understand this, we must remember that the original plan was for Moses to have received the Kehuna (priesthood), the hereditary leadership function in Israel.

However, when God first suggests to Moses that he be His emissary to Pharaoh, Moses demurs, again and again [Exodus 3:10-4:17], declaring himself to be unworthy. At length, “the Lord became angry with Moses, and He says, ‘Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite? He will surely speak … he will be your mouthpiece, and you will provide for him [the words] of God.’” In this context, God refers to Aaron as the Levite, not as the Kohen. But when Moses keeps refusing to be the emissary, God removes the dynastic priesthood from Moses and bestows it upon Aaron, observes Rashi.

Perhaps the switch in roles had to do with the different functions of priest and prophet, and the different personalities of Aaron and Moses.

Moses was a man of God [Deuteronomy 33:1]. His active intellect actually “kissed” the active intellect of the Divine, and so Moses was able, by dint of his mind and soul, to communicate God’s Torah to Israel and all posterity. We do see from here, however, that Moses had no difficulty in communication; indeed he communicated much of the Book of Deuteronomy (see the Abarbenel) so why does Moses describe himself as “slow of speech”? I believe that what he meant was that he had little patience for small talk, for human fellowship. He was totally immersed in his discussions with God, in learning and communicating Torah. So involved was he with God that he separates from his wife and neglects to circumcise his son Eliezer [Ex. 4:24-25].

Moses only seeks Divine fellowship and Divine Torah talk; such endowments of intellect and spirit cannot be passed down as an inheritance to the next generation; they are sui generis, to the greatest prophet who ever lived [Deut: 34:10].

Aaron, on the other hand, was a man of the people. He loved all humanity and brought everyone close to Torah [Avot 1:13].

Moses acquired the Torah intellectually; Aaron taught it to the masses with love. Speaking loving words and doing loving deeds can be learned and bequeathed. And so Aaron is blessed with the Kehunah (Priesthood), sanctifying him and his descendants to bless the nation Israel “with love.” Aaron was the loving Kohen and teacher of Israel; Moses was the lonely servant of God, faithfully providing the Torah for eternity.

Nevertheless, Moses the human being, would have loved to see his sons assume religious leadership; they do not. And when Moses is thrust in the position of directing the investiture of Aaron and his sons, and especially when he slaughters the consecration-inauguration ram expressing the dynastic aspect of the priesthood, Moses cannot help but hesitate, reflecting his feelings of loss, frustration, even a little jealousy, as well as apprehension about continuity within his own family line.

Moses, who gave himself over completely to God and nation, understands at this pivotal moment the personal sacrifice and cost, the loss of family closeness and continuity it engendered. This, I believe, is the message of the shalshelet, the tragedy of Moses’ life, although – or perhaps because – he was God’s most faithful servant. His pre-occupation with God may have been the reason he failed to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land.

And yet because of that pre-occupation, the world received its greatest legacy — God’s and Moses’ Torah.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:05 p.m. (Fri.);
7:10 p.m. (Wed.); 8:11 p.m. (Thu.)

Torah: Lev. 6:1-8:36                              

Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-3:24

Havdalah: 8:06 p.m.