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Parashat Tetzaveh 5773 — 02/20/2013

Parashat Tetzaveh 5773 — 02/20/2013

And make sacred vestments for Aharon your brother, for honor and splendor (28:2).

And Hashem Gd made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and He dressed them (Bereishit 3:21).

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.  (Mark Twain)

Over the past several parshiot we have been discussing the nature of the relationship between Gd and creation.  We have been using what I’ve been calling the “sandwich” model of this relationship: creation starts and ends with Gd, infinite, unbounded and unchanging, with the finite, changing world we creatures inhabit somehow in the “middle,” although this term can be understood neither as a spatial construct nor as a temporal one, as both time and space are part of creation, and Gd transcends both.  (Einstein’s General Relativity gives us a picture of time and space as dynamic actors in the play of creation, not just the backdrops to it.)  Our Parashah is devoted mostly to the priestly vestments, so I would like to use the concept of clothing to try to get at another approach to our topic.

We generally think of clothing in its capacity to conceal, to cover.  The very first clothing is associated with Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence after eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  Suddenly they realized that they were naked, a fact which surely had not escaped them before eating, but which obviously was not of great significance to them in their innocence.  Babies and small children blissfully run around naked; adults often have dreams where they are discovered naked and wake up with a start, feeling terribly uncomfortable.

There is another aspect of clothing however: it can reveal much about the person wearing the clothes.  On the simplest level, draping clothing around the body defines a shape that we want to project.  I read a story once about an Orthodox Jewish woman who went to a clothier and asked for clothes that would satisfy Orthodox standards of modesty, yet that fit her attractive figure tightly; she was not held up as a paragon of modesty, for she was using her clothes to reveal, rather than to conceal.  On another level, clothes can reveal something about our personality or our group affiliation.  For example, the type of headgear one wears in Israel may reveal that we are Chassidic (a shtreimel), or Chareidi (black hat) or “national religious” (knitted kippah) or non-religious (no head covering).  Someone who wears a tie-dyed T-shirt probably thinks differently than someone who wears a Brooks Brothers suit.

On another level, our tradition tells us that our bodies are like the clothing for our souls.  Significantly, when Aharon’s time to pass on arrives, Gd tells Moshe to bring him and his son Elazar up to a cave in the mountains (there is disagreement just where these mountains are) and to strip his clothing off him.  The clothing is given over to his son Elazar, who then serves as Kohen Gadol (High Priest).  Aharon, no longer encumbered by externals, is then free to leave his body behind and become a pure soul once again.  The Midrash, in fact, has Moshe asking Gd to make his death as sublime as Aharon’s, a wish which Gd granted when He told Moshe to ascend Mt. Nebo and “die as your brother Aharon did” – that is, in the manner in which Aharon died, by simply passing out of his body and resuming his status as pure spirit.  This idea is of course reinforced in the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, when Gd creates for humans “garments of skin.”  The simple reading would be leather garments, but given Adam and Eve’s immediately prior exalted status, one could almost say that really the simple meaning is that Gd clothed these purely spiritual creatures with human bodies, which are of course bounded by our skin.

Now let us take this one step further.  Gd is often called the “soul of the world.”  We understand this to mean that if we get past all the diversity of creation, we eventually arrive at Gd, the infinite, unique, unchanging basis of all this changing diversity.  But if this is the case, we can turn the analogy around and say: just as the body is the clothing of the (individual human) soul, so the diverse creation is the clothing of “its” soul – Gd.  And just as clothing can both conceal and reveal, so it is with creation.  If we take a superficial look at the physical universe we see that it pretty much “runs by itself.”  While the question of the origins of creation are probably beyond the ken of modern science, many scientists feel that our understanding of the physical world allows us to answer along with Laplace’s comment about Gd: “I have no need for that hypothesis.”  Indeed, the age of science that we are in is described in Jewish tradition as a time of hester panim – the “hiding” of Gd’s face.

If we take a deeper look at the marvelous structure of creation, and look, perhaps outside science, for answers to questions of ultimate origins, we see that the creation can reveal Gd’s existence and intelligence.  In the words of Rambam (Hilchot yesodei haTorah 2:2): When [a person] contemplates Gd’s handiwork, and analyzes His amazing and wondrous creations, he witnesses Gd’s wisdom which has no measure or limit.  Immediately he is filled with love and praise for Gd and yearns to know Him.  Such thoughts fill the person with a profound sense of awe… .  Einstein, some 7 centuries later, spoke in similar terms: If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.  (You can find many more quotes on this theme at  Modern science is of course based on measurement, and measurement means comparison with a standard (e.g. a meter stick or a kilogram weight).  This means that science intrinsically deals with finite values.  Nevertheless, science has allowed us to glimpse the structure of creation at finer and finer levels, leading us, if we will let it, to finer and finer appreciation of the Creator.

In the Temple in Jerusalem there was a curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary.  The Kohen Gadol went behind the curtain, where the Ark containing the Tablets Gd gave Moshe rested, only once a year, on Yom Kippur.  The two staves by which the Ark was carried during the 40 years in the desert were still emplaced in their rings as the Torah commands (see last week’s Parashah).  The staves pushed out against the curtain just a little bit.  The curtain concealed the Ark, yet hinted at its presence.  Creation conceals Gd, yet if we are aware, it also hints at His presence, as King Solomon writes: Standing behind the wall, peering through the windows, peeking through the lattice.  It’s just up to use to learn to see the curtain, but know Who is behind it all.