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Parashat Tetzaveh 5778 — 02/24/2018

Parashat Tetzaveh 5778 — 02/24/2018

Shemot 27:20-30:10

You shall make holy garments for your brother, Aharon, for honor and glory. (28:2)
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man (Hamlet I:3)

Many non-leap years the parshiyot Terumah (last week) and Tetzaveh are read together; this year they are separate. When they’re combined I always seem to write about something in Terumah; I have more trouble with Tetzaveh, which focuses mainly on the priestly garments. Apparently Abarbanel does too, because R. Kasnett found considerably less material to include in his compendium. Nevertheless, the priestly garments are interesting in and of themselves, and they give us a chance to reflect on the nature of clothing in general.

The priests (kohanim) were required to wear special garments while performing the Temple rituals (principally offerings of animals or birds, or the grain offerings) – a kohen who was not wearing those special garments was considered as if he were not a kohen at all, and was subject to the same severe penalties as any other non-kohen who would attempt to perform the Temple service.

An ordinary kohen wore four special garments: a turban, a sash, a tunic, and pants underneath to cover the private parts. (In those days people didn’t generally wear undergarments beneath their robes, so they were exposed to the ground. When that ground was holy ground, such exposure is unseemly.) These garments were made of plain, white linen, which symbolizes purity and humility.

The Kohen Gadol wore four additional garments: the breastplate, the apron, the robe and a head plate, worn on the forehead. Donning and serving in these four additional garments was sufficient to install a Kohen Gadol, and in the Second Temple period, when there was no access to the special anointing oil, it was the only way to install a Kohen Gadol. These garments had gold and purple-dyed wool in them for “honor and glory.” Lest all this honor and glory go to the Kohen Gadol‘s head, he wore the white linen garments as well as the additional garments.

Abarbanel relates the different garments to various parts of the body:

  • The head plate corresponds to the head, where the thinking process is seated
  • The breastplate is over the heart, the seat of love, the force that unifies. It contains the 12 stones corresponding to the 12 tribes, indicating that the Kohen Gadol was to serve as a unifying force amidst all Israel.
  • The apron is over the abdomen, seat of digestion. Abarbanel takes this as a symbol that we should eat only permitted foods.
  • The robe covers the reproductive organs, indicating that our physical desires must be harnessed to our spiritual growth.

These comparisons with their associated symbolisms are both valid and instructive. I would like to suggest an additional approach. We spoke in previous parshiyot that our tradition identifies Torah as the “blueprint of creation.” That is, the sequence of sounds in Torah (i.e. the phonetics and grammar of Hebrew) is the same as the basic, virtual impulses within the transcendent. These basic impulses are the most fundamental aspects of the laws of nature that structure the manifest creation, including the cosmos as a whole, the human body, and human consciousness. When an individual’s consciousness is fully expanded and includes perception of the transcendent as well as the manifest realm, one can actually perceive these impulses within himself.

According to Ramban, the entire structure of the Mishkan and the procedures of the sacrificial service were supposed to recreate the experience of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, when all the people saw clearly into the transcendental level. Moshe Rabbeinu was able to maintain this perception; the bulk of the people were not, as the rest of Jewish history reveals. But let’s try taking Ramban at face value. If the Mishkan and its appurtenances, including the priestly vestments, are meant to mimic the Revelation, then perhaps we can say that their actual structure is a re-creation of the structure of the fundamental laws of nature that the people perceived at Mt. Sinai.

In other words, perhaps the Mishkan, the menorah, the ark, the garments of the priests, the altar, the order of the sacrificial ritual, all are not only symbolic, they actually are meant to enliven in the observer / participant those same impulses of creation that they are physical instantiations of. How? I would guess it would be a kind of resonance phenomenon – since our bodies, too, are structures that instantiate the same impulses that are reflected in the Mishkan, when we perceive or participate in the life of the Mishkan, those same structures in us are set “vibrating” if you will, by the vibrations produced in the Mishkan, in the same way that a tuning fork that is struck will cause another, nearby tuning fork to begin vibrating, if the two have the same frequency. And the different rituals for different times of the year – Rosh Chodesh, the holidays, Yom Kippur – may enliven somewhat different impulses, ones that are appropriate to that particular time of year.

The net effect of this is that our own physiological structure, when allowed to resonate with the pure structure of the Mishkan and its performances, becomes purified and aligned with its own ideal, and this attunes us with Gd’s Will and also has a resonating effect on the environment, harmonizing and bringing abundance to all peoples. As our Sages say, if the nations of the world knew how valuable the Temple was for them, they would have stationed troops in Jerusalem to guard it, rather than destroying it! Alas, because we have gotten so out of tune with Gd’s Will, the Mikdash could no longer function in its role of purifying the world and the Jewish people, and it was withdrawn. Now that we again have sovereignty in the Land of Israel, let us pray that the Mikdash may be speedily restored so that we can all reach the pinnacle of human life.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Tetzaveh

In this parshah, Gd continues giving Moses many instructions to command the children of Israel to do so that He will dwell among them
The first is that they shall bring pure olive oil to kindle the lamps continually.

Oil, lamps and light all have deep symbolism that guides us to live in such a way that we will be aware of Gd’s Presence within every aspect of our mind, body, soul, heart and in the world around us.

Oil, for example, symbolizes the aspect of Gd through which he appears, speaks to us. It is used for anointing kings and priests, making them holy (Whole) so they can serve Gd.

Lamps are containers to hold kindling, such as oil, and they symbolize we human beings who have become pure enough to know that Gd’s Presence is already within us.

Light, for example, symbolizes the actions in which we not only know Gd’s Presence but also act with Gd’s Presence enlivening, purifying, enlightening every action of ours so that they are in accord with Gd’s Will and spread awareness of Gd’s Presence so we are aware of it everywhere and so is everyone else, so is every impulse of Gd, all of what we call Creation, the Universe.

Just by reading this parshah, in Hebrew or in English, or hearing it–a bit, a lot or all of it,–we become lamps in which Gd’s Presence is apparent and lights in which Gd’s Will is done—a little, more, a lot, and then all, and we return through our openness and our good actions to the Oneness in which all separations are dissolved and all details are enjoyed as expressions within the Oneness which is Gd, our Self, One.

Baruch HaShem