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Parashat Tetzaveh – Dressing for the job

In this week’s portion we continue with the theme that defines most of the Book of Exodus: the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was used by the Israelites throughout their years of wandering in the wilderness, and all of the “holy implements” that were used within. Included among these “implements” were the Kohanim, the priests who performed the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his sons were selected to serve in this important and hereditary office of religious leadership.

Great detail is given about the elaborate ritual garments of the High Priest, who was to be regally resplendent in gold and precious stones. Like all the other elements of the Mishkan, the priestly garments were to be made of the finest materials, to be both functional and beautiful. The costume of the High Priest is to be symbolic of his responsibility to serve on behalf of the people. The text makes it clear that there is purpose for all of this ornamentation: “Make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for dignity and splendor” (Exodus 28:2).

Clothes make the man,” the old saying goes. Clothes certainly do seem to impress us human beings. Nothing makes a greater first impression than how one is dressed. It’s quite remarkable, really. We try to sum up a person’s entire character simply by how they are dressed. Jobs have been won and lost, relationships continued or ended, all based on the clothes we wear. The fashion industry certainly understands this important detail of human nature. So do schools and the military. The whole point of putting people into uniform is to minimize their differences; to make individualization impossible and to reduce independence. You are what you wear. When we dress the same as others, it is because we don’t want to be seen as different. And when we do want to stand out, we do so through the clothes that we wear.

The Torah certainly understands this as well. This week’s parashah devotes more than forty verses, an unusually high number for any single topic, to the subject of the Bigdei Kodesh, the holy clothing or ritual garments for the high priests. So what is so important about the garments of the High Priest? Does not Judaism usually focus on inner qualities, frowning on such an outward show of materialism? How can garments be holy? How can they alone bring dignity and splendor?

It seems that Torah is indeed telling us that clothes do make the man, or at least the role in which the man is serving. Aaron, already well respected and loved among the people, is to be dressed as befits a Kohen Gadol — a High Priest. When he engages in work that is holy, he is to be suitably dressed in holy garments; clothes that add dignity and splendor to the work. This is the notion of Hiddur Mitzvah — the enhancement of a Mitzvah (commandment) through the adornment of the act. This is why we say Kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the Mitzvah, but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) notes, however, that the commandment to dress the High Priest in garments for glory and splendor is not only to enhance the status of the priest himself, but also to enhance the glory of God. He notes that in the mystical teachings, dignity (kavod) and splendor (tiferet) are Sefirot, emanations of the Divine. Through these special garments worn by the Priest, God’s presence among the people is further demonstrated. This teaching suggests that the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out in the priest and worn on the outside with his clothing.

When dressed in his priestly vestments, the High Priest is reminded of his special role and the sanctity of his calling. It is a symbol, a reminder. But holy clothes are really only holy when they cover a holy person. In this regard, one does not need to be a priest. We all have the potential for such holiness. We just need to find a way to allow our own holiness to be worn on the outside.

The narrative of the Torah comes to a grinding halt with Parashat Terumah, but that does not mean that some of the deepest meaning of our relationship with God cannot be found in the details of Terumah and the parshiyot ahead. From the dramatic stories of the antediluvians and our patriarchal ancestors in Genesis, to the powerful story of redemption from slavery in Egypt and revelation of God’s presence at Sinai, we now move to the details of building the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle is the shrine to house the Ark and the Tablets of the Covenant, and the details for its construction provide the content for the remainder of the book of Exodus, except for the story of the Golden Calf. From here through the end of the book of Leviticus we will hear of the role of the priests within the space of the Tabernacle, teachings that do not provide good material for bedtime stories or epic movies. Nevertheless, these teachings concern one of the core questions humans have asked as far back as we can remember: how can we, who understand there is a mystery of Life, develop a relationship with It?

In the early stories of Exodus we learn that our ancestors had a profound transformative experience in their flight to freedom from Egypt and their hearing first teachings from God at Sinai. How could they recapture those experiences? To write or speak of them, was not enough. Rituals needed to be developed to be able to transmit the experience of the spiritually powerful to the generations who had not been there at that moment. As we read in last week’s parashah, one way to transmit that experience was through the system of mitzvot — specific deeds or commands that formed a just and compassionate society. In the two previous parshiyot, the concept of sacred time has also been taught through the keeping of Shabbat and the commemoration of Pesach. This week we turn our attention, as we do in the weeks ahead, to the establishment of sacred space.

The notion that time or space can be sacred, however, seems incongruous to our understanding and teaching of God. After all, our ancestors were the first to teach that there is one universal, infinite God beyond time and space. Can we not encounter God any time and anywhere? Walking in the mountains and breathing the fresh air; seeing the sky-scape in the outback; enjoying a sunrise at the beach — are not each of these the most incredible spiritual moments and places? For what do we need to build a Tabernacle? Or for that matter a Bet ha-Mikdash (a sacred house, normally translated as The Temple and the subject of this week’s haftarah). What about a synagogue? Yet, just as our ancestors spent so much time on the detail of their holy places and spaces, so too should we. The creation of holy space is essential in our ability to encounter the intimate indwelling presence of the life source, to transcend to the beyond.

The Torah teaches this week that God says, “let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8) and the corresponding haftarah concludes:

With regard to this House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake my people Israel

(I Kings 6:12–13).

These places are the places where we can come to encounter God’s presence. Our ancestors were not simplistic — far from it. They understood that the Source of All Existence will be forever present beyond time and space and within all time and space. While that may be true of the Infinite, the finite – the very limited humans briefly passing through this place – need to construct places and times and ways to meet the Infinite. That is the essential nature of the relationship.

The Torah has dealt with – and will continue to deal with – questions of justice, compassion, and sacred time. It now opens the notion that sacred space is also essential to encounter the divine. Certainly, the Life Source can be encountered on a mountaintop, in the outback or on the beach. Nevertheless, the designation by humans of space as specifically holy – whether Tabernacle or Temple or synagogue – adds another element: the human consciousness. We create those spaces specifically for sacred encounter, shared with community and generations to come; we establish a living tradition of spiritual encounter that can be transmitted.

Each one of us has the potential to have a personal spiritual experience at any place and at any time. If we hope that those spiritual experiences will have religious impact, then we need to construct means to structure and transmit them. The Tabernacle is the first model for what will become in today’s terms the synagogue – the place where we seek to transform ourselves and the world in our profound encounter with God.

This week as we read Parashat Mishpatim, we truly come down from the mountain when Moses instructs the community about the rules for day to day life. No longer the lofty ten commandments, these laws deal with the practicalities of communal living, from the mundane to the crucial. There are laws about the justice system beside laws about returning lost property — in recognition that both are crucial to the functioning of a just and compassionate society. And in amongst the more than 50 commandments in the parashah, are a number of mentions of capital punishment for crimes including murder, idolatry and wayward sons who disobey their parents. From these very clear directives it would seem that the Torah, and therefore Judaism, has no problem with capital punishment for certain crimes. But the reality of lived Judaism is very different from the Torah pronouncement.

The rabbis of our tradition were uncomfortable with the notion of capital punishment, so they essentially legislated it out of existence. They did not change the Torah, but rather placed preconditions around the execution of the punishment which would ensure it could never be carried out. For example, two witnesses must see the person committing the entire crime, and they must warn the person that the crime they are committing is punishable by death. The person must acknowledge the warning and then say that they understand but they are going to continue with the action anyway, despite the fact it could lead to the death penalty. Further, the witnesses must then give identical evidence at the trial and no circumstantial evidence is to be accepted.

As well as these requirements, the rabbis go further in their quest to abolish the death penalty. They knew that they had put conditions in place which could not be met and that if they were, somebody must have acted illegally. So the Mishna says:

A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10).

The rabbis and their communities were very uncomfortable with the idea of humans taking the lives of others in these circumstances. The irreversible nature of the punishment, the fact that it leaves no room for repentance and rehabilitation, made the rabbis determined to eliminate it. Demonstrating the level of discomfort in the community about capital punishment, Maimonedes said in Sefer Hamitzvot: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death”.

The sanctity of human life and the fallibility of the legal system, no matter how just, led the rabbis to legislate the death penalty out of existence. At this time when there are people facing the possibility of execution for crimes they committed, we pray for their lives to be spared and that they be given the opportunity to contribute positively to the world and the people around them.

On this Shabbat, during the reading of the Torah, Jews throughout the world will rise from their seats and witness a most dramatic scene – the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This theophany, a scene in which God appears to human beings, forms one of the most memorable episodes in the entire Torah. 

And yet, on the other hand, we commemorated the liberation of the camps two weeks ago and this past week we continue hearing horrible news from the middle east. During those days of the Shoah, as in today’s news, there was no God, but the idolatry of fascism and terrorism. The essence of God’s holiness was profaned and trampled upon by those who acted not in God’s name, but in the name of violence and murder. Concentration camps obliterated the idea of Sabbath rest, parents and children were torn apart; murder, rape, stealing, the bearing of false witness, one neighbor informing against another, and a rapacious greed, became the code of the Third Reich.

Since the Shoah, it has been difficult for secularized societies to find a place for the cornerstone of Jewish and Christian faith and values. The voice of a majestic God, thundering from the summit of Mount Sinai “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” emerges out of the experience of a people’s enslavement to Pharaoh, the miracle of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and a conviction that divine providence provided the fine manna which dropped like dew from heaven during the forty years of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert.

The voice of God today scarcely warbles. We idolize the values which emerged in the twentieth century but find it difficult to root these values in faith, in belief in a God who makes moral demands from us, who compels us to choose life over death, blessing over curse.

So what does it mean for contemporary Jews to hear the Ten Commandments in synagogue – as we will do so this Shabbat as part of the weekly portion? We will observe the tradition of standing for this parashah; we will nod our heads no doubt to the moral imperatives of the words: the respect that is due to parents and elders, the prohibition against murder and stealing.

But what about the more ‘religious’ commandments? What do they mean to us? How is God portrayed in these commandments? God is not some abstract philosophical entity in these verses, but a Being and Presence who has a relationship with the Jewish people. “I am the Eternal One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” It is because of what God did for us, that the commandment demands our unique and singular faithfulness to God.

Yet who is this God whom we are called to worship and love? How can we love that which is so beyond our comprehension; how can we express in our worship what will always elude our understanding? We should perhaps note that this second ‘Word’ concludes with a reference to God’s love and faithfulness – “showing loving kindness to the thousandth generation”.

Perhaps one way of reading this commandment is to understand that we cannot live without love. These words speak about the emotional component of our relationship with God. It is love that forms the matrix of human existence and its continuation. We cannot live without it. It is love that makes our lives worth living and evokes from us generosity, unselfish deeds and the deepest compassion.

That is why when we lose the object of our love, the grief and pain make us inconsolable. We have lost a part of ourselves.

In the absence of love, the terrain is sterile and ungiving. Yet when love is at the heart of all our relationships, we are called to higher things – a desire to know and understand the object of our love, a desire to give and do good and a generosity of heart that calls forth our noblest and highest impulses.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song, because during our services we read three songs and poems to God. The first two come after the Israelites have crossed the parted waters of the sea, escaping Egyptian slavery. After years of oppression and fear they are finally free and they sing to God, first Moses and then Miriam leading the community in song and dance. The third song is in our Haftarah reading from Deborah, following a military triumph. In each of these cases, a miraculous deliverance has taken place and the people respond with song. Music is incredibly powerful, it can evoke strong emotions but can also be an expression of our deepest fears, hopes, dreams, yearnings, joy and sorrow, in a way which words cannot convey. Music touches the innermost recesses of our souls, it can express what words sometimes cannot contain. At the shores of the sea, Moses did not gather the people and give a speech, instead he sang words of poetry. And Miriam, encouraged everyone to join together in song and dance, so that all could express their joy, relief, excitement in that moment and for what the future would hold. And that moment was made all the more powerful because the community joined their voices together, they played their instruments, they reached into themselves and allowed the song to ring out.

We too can feel that connection through music and the link with community. Rabbi Pinchus of Koretz said: “Alone I cannot lift my voice in song. Then you come near and sing with me. Our prayers fuse and a new voice soars. Our bond is beyond voice and voice. Our bond is one, spirit and Spirit.” When we join together in song we meet in a place which is beyond words, we connect through music to the joy and beauty of our tradition and the power of community. And when we listen to each others’ voice, we are heard in a profound way.

This week we also commemorate Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, the time when we acknowledge and celebrate the natural world. A story is told of Rabbi Avraham Kook, the chief rabbi of Israel. He was walking in the fields deep in thought when the young student accompanying him plucked a leaf off a branch. Shaken by this act, Rav Kook turned to the student and said to him “believe me when I tell you that I never pluck a leaf or a blade of grass unless I must. Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song, breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of creation.” And from that moment the student learned to show compassion to all creatures. It is not only we who sing a song, the whole of creation sings its own song into the world and it is for us to pause, listen and hear the music and join in with our own song to create a beautiful harmony. I pray that this Shabbat of song, we can all create beautiful music together, join our voices with all of creation and sing from the depths of our souls.

I will betroth you to me forever” are the beginning words one says upon wrapping the tefillin around the fingers, and this quotation from the prophet Hosea indicates the significance of wrapping tefillin, first mentioned in this week’s parasha “Bo”. The tefillin embody the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people; according to the received tradition, the tefillin, Shabbat and circumcision are known as “the signs of the covenant”. Despite the significance of tefillin, the placing of tefillin on one’s weaker arm every morning service (other than Shabbat, festivals and Tisha B’Av) is a mitzvah that has waned and now waxes again. Perhaps the study about tefillin will lead to the mitzvah of tefillin.

Tefillin, two leather boxes with leather straps, are worn on the hand (arm) and head. Inside the leather boxes are found the four passages from the Torah that mention the tefillin. Two of them come from the end of this parasha Bo. The other two mentions of tefillin are in the book of Deuteronomy (those two paragraphs are the ones that also mention the mezuzah and form the first two paragraphs of the Shema.) The mitzvah of tefillin connects us to some of the deepest teachings of Torah. Jewish educator Stephen Bailey notes that all four passages have a common conceptual thread, teaching about redemption and service.

The passages from Bo mention “this observance will be for you as a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead – in order that the teaching of God is to be on your lips – for God brought you out of Egypt with a show of strength” and “it will be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that God brought us out of Egypt by force.” As such, the tefillin serve as daily, physical reminders of our delivery from slavery by “God’s might”. The concept of redemption in Judaism requires us to recognize that our freedom is dependent upon our connection with the life force and that in return we must serve life and humanity.

The wearing of tefillin demonstrates how to serve, highlighted by the sentence in the first paragraph of the Shema to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The hand tefillin is placed on the bicep of our weaker arm. The bicep symbolizes our strength and our ability to do. The weaker arm reminds us that our strength and autonomy have limitations. It rests near our heart, symbolic of the seat of our love and compassion. The head tefillin is placed with the box at the hairline between the eyes, near the “third eye” with the knot at the base of the skull. This placement emphasizes the nature of soul and intellect in our service. Heart, soul and body stand in service to the life force, known as God, with the values stated in Hosea recited as we wrap the tefillin around our finger in a sign of commitment to the covenant: “And I will betroth you to me with righteousness and justice and with love and compassion and you shall know God.”

The tefillin encapsulate the teachings of the Exodus: let my people go in order that they should serve Me. After decades of enslavement to greed and consumption, to selfishness and apathy, it is time again to serve life, as manifested in our relationships, community and environment.

This week we read from Parashat Va’era, the second portion of the Sefer Shemot — the Book of Exodus. As commanded by God, Moses makes his first approach to Pharaoh, to demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Despite the first seven of the ten plagues that are to afflict the people of Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. As the text tells us, “Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go” (Exodus 7:14).

In the Broadway musical “Wicked”, Glinda the Good Witch asks the question: “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” (1st act) This question is terribly relevant both to our parashah this week and to the world in which we live today. This week, as we mourn the tragic and senseless terrorist murders in Paris, as well as the mass killings in Nigeria, we read about Moses’ confrontation with the man who exemplifies evil in our tradition, Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. Again and again Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, no matter how many plagues strike Egypt. Contrasted to the humility that characterizes Moses, extreme stubbornness and pride prevent Pharaoh from letting the Israelite slaves go free.

We Jews are way too familiar with the experience of confronting evil. It began with Pharaoh and continues in the Bible with Amalek, Korach, Bilaam and Haman. In history we have survived crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and holocausts. At our Passover Seder, when we celebrate God taking us out of slavery in Egypt, we proclaim, “In every generation they rise up to try to destroy us.” In our own generation, with the murderous assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market and café sieges in Sydney, we again see the face of evil. Today that face is extremism, those who hearts are so hardened that they would rather violently kill than tolerate any sort of offense to their way of life.

As Glinda asks, how does one become this way? Was Pharaoh born evil? Was Hitler born evil? Were the jihadists born evil? If not, how did they become this way? As human beings we are not guided entirely by biological determination. From one’s culture and community we grow up learning essential values and ways of seeing the world. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that there are many paths to the same God. We are instructed to “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that human beings possess both an inclination toward good and an inclination toward evil. Both exist as pure potential in each of us. One inclination can never fully defeat the other, but the eternal challenge is to maintain a balance between the two, a balance somewhere between the extremes of Moses and Pharaoh. No child is born evil. But the teachings of family and community, of culture and religion, can push one from one inclination to the other. That is how hearts are hardened. If children are taught to hate, they will grown up hating; if one is taught that it pleases God to murder those who are different, then they will murder.

Pharaoh serves as a negative example. Our tradition commands us to “teach it to your children” — to soften the heart, to develop compassion and loving-kindness and to cultivate the good inclination. These are the fundamentals of Jewish tradition. And it is in the spirit of these same teachings that we can join together with the soft-hearted peoples of all faiths and traditions to work together to bring a just peace to this world in which we all live.

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