Stephen Colbert's Emmy

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on February 11, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

On September 22, 2013, the Hollywood Reporter carried this headline on one of its articles: "Emmys 2013: 'The Colbert Report' Ends 'The Daily Show's' 10-Year Winning Streak" (of course, other media outlets had similar headlines and stories; this was just the first one that popped up in my Google search...). After ten years in which "The Daily Show" had repeatedly won the Emmy in the category of "Outstanding Variety Series," this time the award went to "The Colbert Report." Two nights later, on September 24th, Stephen Colbert was eager to congratulate himself and to "gloat" at his win over the other nominees in the category, and especially over Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" - the show on which Colbert appeared as a "correspondent" for a number of years before beginning his own show. That is, until Stewart himself walked onto the set and burst Colbert's self-congratulatory balloon by expressing his joy and delight in his friend's success (you can see the segment here:

Okay, Rabbi Labovitz, so you're a big fan of both men and their shows. What has that to do with this week's parashah?

Commentators have long noted that there is a strange relationship between Moses and this parashah. It is the only parashah from the beginning of Exodus through the end of the Torah in Deuteronomy, in which Moses' name is never mentioned. And yet Moses is, in a different way, front and center in the parashah. Both this and last week's parashah are heavily taken up with conveying intricate and comprehensive details for how the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in which the Israelites will worship and offer sacrifices, is to be constructed and furnished and decorated. And in both this parashah and the last, the way in which these instructions are given is almost entirely in second person address to Moses: You shall make... You shall build... You shall place... You shall overlay with gold... Although Moses is not named in our parashah, not even in an opening "And God spoke to Moses...," nonetheless all of its content is God speaking in direct address to Moses. What are we to make of this paradox of Moses' seemingly simultaneous presence and absence in the parashah?

What is more, while the instructions for the Mishkan are given through Moses and appear to designate Moses as the recurring active party in its construction, the Mishkan will not be Moses' realm. Rather, it is Moses' brother Aaron and his sons who will serve there as priests, and one of the instructions given to Moses, only three verses into the parashah, is "You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his serve Me as priests." It will be Moses' task to hand over leadership in this realm of the sacred to someone else. If Moses is so central to the process of constructing the Mishkan, why shouldn't he subsequently serve as its most important functionary, as Kohen Gadol, the High Priest?

Now can you guess where I'm going with this?

Not surprisingly, there are rabbinic midrashim that seek to fill in a back story to this moment. Some of these posit that Moses did expect that the role of High Priest would be his. One midrashic tradition, found in the Tanhuma, therefore imagines Moses' desire, and its thwarting, as a form of pay back for Moses' initial reluctance to be God's messenger when called at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-4:17 - note the length of the account and the number of times Moses attempts to deflect God's mission for him):

All seven days while Moses was at the Burning Bush, God urged him, "Go on My mission," and Moses answered, "Send by the hand of someone else!" (4:13)...Then God said to him..."As you live, tomorrow I will pay you back! When the Mishkan is constructed, you will expect to become High Priest, and I will say to you, "Call Aaron to be appointed High Priest!" (Tanhuma Shemini 3; translation from Aviva Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture).

Yet the midrash also adds another dimension to the story:

Moses told Aaron, "God has instructed me to appoint you High Priest." Aaron replied, "You have labored so hard on the Mishkan and I am made High Priest!" Moses replied, "As you live, even though you have become High Priest, it is as though I had become High Priest! Just as you rejoiced when I rose to greatness, so I rejoice in your greatness."

Aaron's first response is not for himself, but concern for Moses. Once he hears his brother's response, Moses too, it seems, is no longer disappointed in his own exclusion from the role; it is the joy Moses gets from his brother's elevation that makes him feel as if he himself had also become High Priest, and that is sufficient. And the feeling is, Moses suggests and the midrash proceeds to demonstrate, mutual:

When had Aaron rejoiced for Moses? When God had told Moses, "Now go, I shall send you to Pharaoh (3:10) - this role is assigned to you," Moses had answered, "Please, my lord, send by the hand of someone else!" - that is, "You will cause my brother to resent me, since he is the elder, and yet you send me on this mission!" Then God had said, "As you live, you are right that he is older than you - nevertheless, he will see you and rejoice in his heart." (3:14)

Moses' reluctance, the reluctance that God seemingly promised to punish at the start of the midrash, is here recast. It is not Moses' rebelliousness or resistance to God, but comes from a place of compassion and concern for the feelings of his brother.

One of the key running themes of the book of Genesis is the challenge of sibling rivalry and competition - from the first killing of human being in an act of fratricide and through the lives of each of the patriarchs and their children. Again and again, a younger brother (and also, I would argue, a younger sister in the story of Rachel and Leah) overturns the expected primacy of an older brother or brothers. One might have thought that Exodus was prepared to continue this pattern by making Moses - who we come to learn is the youngest sibling in his family - its central character from its very first parashah. And yet what we come to see in Exodus, and in this rabbinic expansions on this moment, is that Moses and Aaron find it in themselves to break this pattern, to each find a role that ultimately suits him and fulfills God's plans without either begrudging the other's success and prominence. The midrash adds one more point: it is the one's ability to be joyful for the other that is central to each rising to the role he does:

Said R. Shimeon bar Yohai: "That same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother, let precious stones be set upon it, as it is said, 'And Aaron shall bear the names of the Israelites on the breastplate upon his heart.'" (28:29)

Because Moses' first impulse at the burning bush is to defer to Aaron, the priesthood will indeed be deflected from Moses to Aaron. But at the same time, it is also because Aaron can rejoice in Moses' initial prominence over him that he is worthy of the priesthood and all its trappings and responsibilities. Moses is central to the receiving and transmitting of God's law, including all the instructions necessary to create the Tabernacle and guide its practices, and yet he does not need his name attached to what will ultimately be Aaron's sphere of leadership. In fact, he himself will happily bring forward Aaron for this role.

I conclude by noting that the Hollywood Reporter also wrote this in its story about the Emmys: "Backstage though, Colbert praised Stewart and was quick to note that, since Stewart is an executive producer on The Colbert Report, his 'streak is not broken... He won for an 11th time.'

'Winning best show is a lot of fun, but second-to-none in my mind is the belief that Jon deserved all those wins,' Colbert said."

Shabbat shalom!