Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Torah Tidbits: Parshat Tetzaveh

This parsha takes the level of detail provided in Parshat Terumah to an entire new lever.  In Terumah, we read about the most minute details concerning the construction of the tabernacle, including many of the structures within it.  Here, the focus is on the specific rites involved in Moses's installation of Aaron and his sons as Priests and on as the unique kinds of garments they are to wear (particularly Aaron as High Priest) in their service.  Before making sharing some of my comments on specific verses, two general comments are in order:
  1. I personally had a hard time picturing the specific kinds of clothes, adornments and rites of installation described in this parsha.  It made me think about how there are many passages in the Torah which offer ambiguous descriptions of things.  While I'm sure the Talmud "clarifies" these things, it makes one wonder to what extent the Torah is in fact a narrative tied to its time and place rather than a document timeless and universal in its relevance.  (Though see the illustrations provided by our Chabad friends at Kehot, in particular pages 216-25). 

  2. The discomfort I felt reading about the weath and ostentation involved in the building of the tabernacle was, for some reason, multiplied several times over reading about the priestly garments and rites of consecration.  Perhaps it is the involvement with individual people rather than buildings that makes the difference for me.  In any case, given who I am today, I would be absolutely mortified to belong to a religion that required gold forehead plates, flowing robes, and animal blood in order to have a relationship with God.  While I appreciate that these things were considered more or less normal at the time, it again goes to show that it's a good thing that things have changed and will continue to change.

28:3 - "And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise-hearted [חַכְמֵי-לֵב], whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom [אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּאתִיו רוּחַ חָכְמָה]..."  This is a curious description, those who are "wise-hearted."  To whom is God referring, exactly?   Who is excluded from this subgroup?  What's most interesting about the phrase "wise-hearted" is that it's a bit oxymoronic:  the heart is usually emotional, while the head is wise.  What is God trying to say here?

28:4 - In this verse and the ones that follow, God explains that a specific kind of garment called an "ephod" [אֵפוֹד] should be made for Aaron and describes what this garment is like.  As noted above, I had a hard time picturing this garment (Kehot's illustrations notwithstanding).  Apparently so did Rashi, who relates in his comments to this verse that he "did not find the explanation of its pattern in the Baraitha."  However, "My heart tells me [ולבי אומר לי]," he says, that certain of its characteristics can be deduced from other tanakh passages.  Sometimes, it seems, you kind of have to make an educated guess.

28:29-30 - One element in particular of Aaron's costume is a "Breastplate of Judgment" [חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט], into which are to be placed "the Urim and the Thummim" so that "they shall be upon Aaron's heart, when he goeth in before the LORD."  Rashi explains that "the Urim and the Thummim" refers to the actual name of God, which was to be written on a piece of parchment (?) in placed within the folded-over breastplate.  I am struck by the literalness of this:  "Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the LORD continually" is physically manifested by (a) a breastplate on which is engraved the names of the 12 tribes and (b) a piece of parchment on which is written God's name placed inside of it. 

Personally, when I think about something "being upon my heart," I tend not to think of it literally in this way; I think of taking something seriously or investing myself emotionally in something.  I suppose there's nothing to preclude my physically putting something on my chest as a sign or reminder of the thing I'm supposed to take seriously, but the physical form would only be a practical manifestation of the underlying thing.  Aaron's "Breastplate of Judgment," though, is explained in precisely this way, that by wearing vestments on which the names of the tribes are written, and the name of God is inside of them, Aaron as the high priest literally "bear[s] the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart" when he enters the Holy of Holies.  So how are we to understand this in the broader context of observing mitzvot?  That adhering to literal interpretation trumps meaning, regardless of how the world changes?  For example, is the essence of the mitzvah not to eat leavened bread during pesach honored by finding ways to substitute all ingredients so that, to the observant Jew, everything looks exactly like it does "on all other nights" -- cakes, rolls, etc. -- or is the point not just to make things different but to have them seem and feel different?  What if following the law doesn't evince the intended kavanah?

In my opinion, it is absurd to think that what it means to put the things God commands us on our hearts will be the same for all people for all time.  Perhaps for the Israelites fresh out of Egypt's idolatry, certain specific physical objects made of gold were needed to do so, but they are not for us.  Well, at least not for me...

28:35 - "And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and the sound thereof shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the LORD, and when he cometh out, that he die not."  This idea that if Aaron doesn't do certain specific things he will die, is something I "get" but is nevertheless troubling to me.  I suppose it's the byproduct of purity:  if it has any meaning, something really bad has to happen if one is "impure" in the presence of God.  But what's the mechanism by which this happens?  I'm imaging a laser projected through a mirror, where if the mirror is imperfect in even the tiniest way, the laser light would cause the lens to explode.  But this is a pretty outdated way of thinking about God, no?  In any case, I suppose it isn't an issue so long as the temple is not rebuilt, and the presence of God doesn't come down to earth (!).

28:36-38 - A plate of gold to be placed on Aaron's forehead with the words "HOLY TO THE LORD" [קֹדֶשׁ לַיהוָה] on it?!?  Seems kind of like tefillin with bling.  But do the words "and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD" actually mean that Aaron always wore this thing on his head?!?  Rashi says no.  Actually, he says "It is impossible to say that it should always be on his forehead, for it was not on him except at the time of the service. But [it means that] it will always make them [the sacrifices] favorable Even when it is not on his forehead, namely if the Kohen Gadol was not ministering at that time."  This is, frankly, silly.  The text says "it shall be always upon his forehead" [וְהָיָה עַל-מִצְחוֹ תָּמִיד].  If the intention was to say that it should be on his forehead at all times while certain rites are being performed, that would make complete sense.  But that's not what the Torah says.  This can't be what it means...

29:13 - "And thou shalt take all the fat that covereth the inwards, and the lobe above the liver, and the two kidneys, and the fat that is upon them, and make them smoke upon the altar."  Gross!!

29:20-21 - As part of consecrating Aaron and his sons as priests, Moses is supposed to kill a ram, then smear its blood on the tip of their right ears, the thumb of their right hands, the big toe of their right feet; and to sprinkle the blood on the altar and on Aaron & Son's garments.  My question is, wouldn't this permanently stain the priestly garments?!?  Would they be replaced?!?

29:29 - "And the holy garments of Aaron shall be for his sons after him, to be anointed in them, and to be consecrated in them."  Is this to say they never changed out these garments?  That they lasted for generations and generations?!?

29:35-37 - "And thus shalt thou do unto Aaron, and to his sons, according to all that I have commanded thee; seven days shalt thou consecrate them."  Seven days?  What abbout Shabbat?!?  How could all of the consecration activities have continued for seven days straight?!?

29:45-46 - "And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the LORD their God."  I have always liked this sentiment -- of God being among the people, not within a structure -- but this begs a question (at least to me):  Now that there is no mishkan, and no Temple...does this mean that God no longer dwells "among the children of Israel"?  If not, then what are the implications of this for the way we think about our relationship with God?  If God does, then clearly something has changed from the days when the tabernacle was needed in order to bring God into the midst of the people.


  1. > to what extent the Torah is in fact a narrative tied to its time and place

    There are two levels at which Terumah and Tetzaveh can be read. One is at the literal level: these are the items and garments of Holy Worship in the Mishkan. The other is to remember that the Mishkan is a microcosm of the universe and the Kohen Gadol and his deputies represent humanity moving within that universe. Thus every item in these two parshiyos have deeper meanings that have timeless relevance.

    > The discomfort I felt reading about the weath and ostentation involved in the building of the tabernacle

    As opposed to huge temples with 1000 seats that are only filled two days a year?

    Also, if you compare the scale and cost of the Mishkan to what was considered standard for most other major religions at the time, ours was actually quite a bargain and very toned down compared to theirs.

    >This is a curious description, those who are "wise-hearted."

    Again, you're missing something because you're reading the translation. Wise-hearted is the literal translation of "chochmei lev" but the English equivalent would be "skilled professional". In other words, get the expert weavers, builders, etc.

    > . Sometimes, it seems, you kind of have to make an educated guess

    The current accepted understanding is that is was shaped like an apron but worn backwards to the way we wear aprons nowadays.

    > For example, is the essence of the mitzvah not to eat leavened bread during pesach honored by finding ways to substitute all ingredients

    This is a very important question. There is the routine and then there is the spirit of the routine. I'll give you another example. Nothing says that I can't set my TV on a timer to come on for the big game on Saturday afternoon. But no one does that? Why? Because it wouldn't feel like Shabbos. So Aharon HaKohen has to symbolically show that his heard, the traditional seat of emotion, is tied to justice - doing the right thing at all times. Emotion cannot be separate on its own or it becomes a destructive force. On the other hand, justice by rote is no longer real justice.

  2. > if it has any meaning, something really bad has to happen if one is "impure" in the presence of God. But what's the mechanism by which this happens?

    God is the King of Kings, the essence of truth and purity. If you were going to meet with your President, you'd take a good shower, get a nice haircut and wear a really nice suit. You'd probably also brush your teeth. And that's just to meet a physical President. Now imagine meeting the King of Kings, who is not physical but spiritual. Purity and impurity in the context you're reading is all about one's spiritual state. It's not about physical effects on the body. Therefore if Aharon is going to stand before God he must be absolutely pure or the lack of purity will result in his body being unable to withstand the encounter.

    > Seems kind of like tefillin with bling.

    If you're looking at the right pictures, it's not tefillin. They were worn about the tzitz.

    > actually mean that Aaron always wore this thing on his head?!?

    No, clearly he didn't. Since it's part of the 8 special garments he wore only when ministering in the Mishkan, like them it was worn only when he was ministering in the Mishkan. Read the text again and you'll see that's was "always" means. It's like if I tell a surgeon "You must always keep your hands clean". I don't care what he does with his hands on a Saturday night. I do care when he's in the OR.

    > My question is, wouldn't this permanently stain the priestly garments?!? Would they be replaced?!?

    The Talmud discussed the laundering process these garments went through. Those that could be cleaned were reused. Those that couldn't were replaced. It was never meant to be that only one set would ever be created.

  3. > Is this to say they never changed out these garments?

    Again, to use a medical example: The surgeon shall wear a set of scrubs in the OR. No one would say it can only be that one set, ever. This is the template for the holy garments but they made lots of sets of them. In different sizes too, if you think about it. And no, they only wear them in the Mishkan. The text makes it clear. Look again.

    > seven days shalt thou consecrate them."

    Yes, they went through Shabbos because most elements of the Temple services are performed despite it being Shabbos. One can slaughter an animal for sacrifice on Shabbos, for example, even though one can't for personal consumption, and so on. The Torah even describes much later on special offerings specifically for Shabbos. So no contradiction here.

    > Now that there is no mishkan, and no Temple...does this mean that God no longer dwells "among the children of Israel"?

    Another excellent question and one that has filled countless books. God does still dwell amongst us, His presence fills the entire universe so how could He not? However, our perception of His presence is much duller than it would have been for our ancestors in the desert or the time of the First Temple when there were visible manifestations (that's what the Shechinah is) of His presence. However, the Mishkan is not only a microcosm of the universe. According to many commentators, it is also a microcosm of us. The implication is that each of us has a duty to build our physical and spiritual selves into a personal Mishkan through our observance of the Torah's laws. If we do that well enough then God will dwell in each of us personally. That's the goal of Jewish practice.