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Parashat Tetzaveh 5775 — 02/25/2015

Parashat Tetzaveh 5775 — 02/25/2015

Parashat Tetzaveh is the only parashah since the birth of Moshe Rabbeinu (in Parashat Shemot) in which Moshe’s name is not mentioned.  It is generally read around Purim time, when we read Megillat Esther, the only book in the Bible where Gd’s name is not mentioned.  Why the hide-and-seek?

Furthermore, Rav Kook points out that although the basic topic is the special garments of the High Priest and of ordinary priests, when Moshe Rabbeinu served as the priest during the week in which his brother Aharon and Aharon’s sons were inaugurated into the priesthood, Moshe himself never wore the priestly garb – rather he wore a plain, white linen robe.  In addition, this robe was seamless, as if it were a “second skin” for Moshe Rabbeinu.  As Rav Kook describes it, it was as if Moshe Rabbeinu wasn’t wearing clothes at all!

Rav Kook explains:

In general, clothing is a concession to human weakness.  The Hebrew word beged (“clothing”) comes from the root b-g-d meaning “to betray.”  In the Garden of Eden, there was nothing wrong with being naked.  It was only after Adam and Eve ate from mthe Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they needed to hide behind clothes – a necessary but tragic betrayal of their natural purity.

   The same is true for the priestly garments.  Each of the eight garments, the Sages tuaght, comes to atone for a particular transgression: arrogance, slander, improper thoughts, and so on (Zevachim 88b).  Were it not for these sins, the kohanim would have no need for these special clothes.  (Sapphire from the Land of Israel)

We can combine Rav Kook’s explanation with another Rabbinic teaching – when Israel stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, they were purified and regained the state of Adam prior to his eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  Unfortunately, just as Adam sinned, the Israelites sinned, this time with the golden calf, and they fell back from their lofty platform.  Thus, the requirement of the priestly garments are a result of the sin of the golden calf, in the same way that the necessity for regular clothing is a result of Adam’s sin.

Why are clothes associated with sin and betrayal?  On a simple level, sin is associated with loss of innocence.  Little children can run around naked and not think twice about it.  It used to be, before pedophilia became such a national plague, that one could take naked pictures of one’s small children in the bath, for example, without being arrested.  Once the child gets a bit older and discovers his/her body, it’s time to put the clothes on and instruct them in the principles of modesty.  Indeed, one of the features of human beings that distinguishes us from animals is a sense of modesty, and therefore only human beings wear clothes.

Before Adam’s sin, he and Eve walked around naked and “they were not ashamed.”  Before they sinned, they had done nothing wrong, and therefore there was nothing to be ashamed of.  Their action was instinctively in accordance with Gd’s Will, including the action of procreation (which, according to the Midrash, happened instantly, rather than taking 9 months).  It was only when Good and Evil became mixed up, in their minds as well as in Creation, that the link between their actions and Gd’s Will got broken.  At that point, shame entered the equation, and the unlucky couple felt the need to hide from Gd.  To do so they went into the bushes; Gd made it easier for them by making them “garments of skin.”

Now clothes have a paradoxical property – they at once conceal and reveal.  One can wear “modest” clothes that cover one’s body from the neck to the sole of the foot, yet if they fit tight enough around one’s curves they can leave very little to the imagination, and in fact can be the exact opposite of modest!  Yet, of course clothes do cover the body, hiding it from sight.  If you have a visible skin condition, like my psoriasis, this can be quite a relief.

We have spoken on numerous occasions about the fact that in order to have a creation with a creature that can come into a free-will relationship with Gd, there has to be the possibility of sin.  Free-will means the ability to act in accordance with Gd’s Will or to rebel against it.  Therefore sin and the necessity of clothing to cover our shame, are essential constituents of Creation.  If this is the case, we should be able to find their analogues even on the transcendental level of creation.

In fact, I think it is fair to say that Creation itself is analogous to clothing – it both hides and reveals that which it “covers” – in this case the inner value of Creation, Gd Himself.  How so?  The easy side first – Creation “covers” Gd’s existence from our perception.  We look and we see the objects of the world, be they external to us or our own body and mind.  Our perception is necessarily of boundaries, since our perceptions are based on our physical senses, and they are themselves finite.  Gd transcends these boundaries and is therefore not amenable to physical perception.  This is what makes prayer sometimes seem difficult and frustrating – we talk to Gd and we wonder if anyone is listening.

Yet on the other side, Creation can reveal Gd as well.  Rambam, in advising us how to “cleave” to Gd, tells us to contemplate nature in its wondrous perfection and infinite intelligence, and we can come at least to an intellectual understanding of Gd, if not in His essence, then at least in His aspect as Creator and Maintainer of all beings.  I would go even a step further.  A wise man said, “Whatever you put your attention on grows stronger in your life.”  Jewish practice is structured to keep awareness of Gd and His Providence uppermost in our awareness.  As we do this, day by day we begin to evaluate Creation differently.  We see Gd’s Hand more and more in every particle of Creation, and our deepest joy becomes conforming our will with His Will.  Since we inhabit finite bodies, with finite perception, we cannot see Gd’s essence, as He tells Moshe Rabbeinu, “No man can see My Face and live.”  Yet by using our soul’s subtler powers of perception, and our mind which can taste infinity, we can find Creation revealing Gd, at least in His active aspect, as much or more than it conceals Him.  Indeed, Gd in His mercy has to don “clothes” in order not to overwhelm us.  If we relate to Gd properly, Creation ceases to be a barrier between us and becomes the very medium by which we fulfill our purpose as Gd’s favorite creatures.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 20: The Unasked Question

The unasked question is: Why is there a Pesach at all?  Why, in fact, did the nascent Israelite nation have to undergo the suffering and humiliation of slavery, only to be redeemed in the end and led back to the very Land from which they came?  Why could Gd not have simply given the Land to Ya’akov and his sons, without orchestrating the sale of Yosef, a terrible famine, a “new king” who was unfavorable to the Jews, and 10 plagues and the splitting of the Sea?  It seems troublesome and circuitous, to say the least.

R. Sacks gives a very simple answer: We generally don’t appreciate or value something until we lose it.  I am writing this the day after shloshim for my beloved Marie, and I can testify to the truth of that statement in spades.  The idea of freedom, of treating every individual as being in the image of Gd, as valuable in his or her own right, is profoundly not natural.  The natural world is “red in tooth and claw,” with the powerful preying on and objectifying the weak.  We see a move in this direction, unfortunately, in the US, a country that supposedly values freedom.  R. Sack’s point appears to be that Israel, having lost its freedom, is ever more vigilant that it not lose it again, and that it not subjugate another people either.

I think that there is something else going on here in addition to R. Sacks’ point.  Exile, meaning estrangement from Gd, and slavery, meaning losing sight of one’s infinite nature and becoming bound to the finite world, is inherent in Creation.  For Gd to create, He had to express Himself in finite values.  Those finite values, being finite, are “different” from their infinite source.  Fortunately, in the case of human beings, Gd also structured a way for us to return to our infinite, inner nature – this is t’shuvah.  By availing ourselves of t’shuvah, we can make any day like Pesach (without the bitter herbs), a day of redemption, the first day of a better life.