Moshe Rabbenu, the great leader of the Exodus, is so prominent in the Torah, that once born, there is henceforth nearly no Torah portion in which he does not appear, save the Torah reading of Tezave. This striking omission is pointed out by the Ba’al Haturim, written by Yaakov ben Asher (Rabbenu Asher), an Ashkenazi rabbi who served in Sephardic Toledo, Spain in the 14th century. Tezave deals primarily with the vestments of the priesthood, which was led by Aharon, Moses’ brother. Rabbenu Asher therefore suggests that Moses’ ‘absence’ is no mere accident. According to the Ba’al Haturim originally Moses was meant to be the High Priest, though he lost that privilege at the time of the Burning Bush. It was then that G-d came to Moses and told him to lead His people to freedom. However, Moses resisted that call to action, arguing that he was not fit to lead. G-d therefore invited Aharon to accompany Moses to Pharaoh, and as a result of his acquiescence Aharon earned the spiritual leadership of the High Priesthood.
It is a cautionary tale, that when we are called upon to act, that we not hesitate, but embrace that divine mission. As it says in Ethics of our Fathers, ‘in a place where there is no one [willing to stand], be sure that you [stand]’ (2:5). It is easy in life to relinquish responsibility to others, and to make it someone else’s problem. However, when we see a problem, if we do not take a stand, who will?
There is a famous idiom that ‘mimoshe ad moshe, lo kam k’moshe,’ that from Moses to Moses no one has arisen like Moses. Originally, this second Moses was a reference to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker. The Western Sephardim, however, also knew another great Moses, Moses Montefiore, one of Bevis Marks’ most illustrious members, and probably the most well known and well to do Jew in the 19th century. He retired at the age of 40 and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropic work for the benefit of both Jewish and Non-Jewish causes, in England and around the world. Amazingly, he travelled to the Land of Israel on 7 occasions, where he modernised the infrastructure of the deeply revered, long-standing, Jewish communities of the Holy Land, in part paving the way for the modern Jewish state of Israel. Montefiore truly was a person of action, as well as of religious devotion.
When Moses Monterfiore was elected Sheriff of London, he refused to arrive by official carriage to his own induction, as it was to be held on Shabbat. Thankfully, in order to accommodate his religious scruples, the induction was moved to a different day. However, as the dinner in his honour was still not kosher, he was forced to bring along his own chicken! I shared the story of Moses Montefiore with the current Sheriff of London when I attended an official dinner at the Lord Mayor of London’s Mansion House this past Thursday night. The dinner was hosted by the Lord Mayor and the Archbishop of Canterbury, with over a hundred of London’s religious leaders in attendance. Thankfully, on this occasion kosher meals were made available and I did not have bring my own chicken. It was an impressive and beautiful evening. You can imagine my surprise, however, when the Lord Mayor, whilst commenting in his speech about renewed activity in the City of London, cited our After Dark candlelight walking tour of Bevis Marks synagogue, from just the the previous night! At that event I introduced the history, stories, rituals and values of our community to 100 mostly young Jewish city workers. I did so through elaborating upon the physical artefacts of the synagogue, including the centuries old benches and chandeliers. I was further shocked when the Archbishop of Canterbury also cited the event in his remarks as an example of the City of London’s religious diversity. Talk about good promotion!
Coincidently, at the tour I had pointed out the cordoned off seat of Sir Moses Montefiore, and I shared his story. Out of honour for his great generosity and piety, even until this day, over a hundred years after his passing, we do not sit in his seat. Instead, visitors and synagogue regulars alike look to it daily for inspiration on how to live a life committed to Jewish tradition, to dispensing charity to Jew and Non-Jew alike, and to supporting Jewish life in the land of Israel.