Skip to content

Parashat Tetzaveh 5779 — 02/16/2019

Parashat Tetzaveh 5779 — 02/16/2019

Shemot 27:20-30:10
Parashat Tetzaveh is famous as the only parashah from the time of Moshe’s birth (in Shemot) in which his name is not mentioned. The commentators all address this issue. One of the more famous approaches reaches forward in the Torah to Moshe’s impassioned plea to Gd to forgive the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf. He asks Gd that if He refuses to forgive the people, erase me from Your book which You have written. While some take “Your book” to be the Book of Life that is written every Rosh haShanah (i.e. Moshe had no interest in continuing to live if Gd were to remain estranged from his people), many of the commentators say that “Your book” is the Torah itself. In other words, if Gd is going to remain estranged from Israel, what is the point of the whole program of Torah and mitzvot upon which we were about to embark – that program is supposed to bring us closer to Gd, which implies there must be at least the possibility of such closeness?

In fact, of course, Gd does forgive the Jewish people, and Moshe continues in his leadership role. However, the Rabbis say that when a great man (tzaddik) utters a curse, even if it is conditional (“if You won’t forgive”) and the condition is not fulfilled (“I have forgiven according to your word”), some aspect of the curse (“erase me”) takes hold anyway. In this case, Moshe was written out of one parashah of the Torah – our parashah. The question is, why this parashah and not another?

As an aside, I’ve always wondered why some aspect of the curse has to be fulfilled. After all, a condition is a condition, and if one makes a vow on condition X, and X is not fulfilled, the vow becomes null and void. For example, sailors and soldiers about to depart on a sea voyage or to battle, would often give their wives conditional divorces, to take effect if they didn’t return home for, say, 6 months. Then if they go MIA, and nobody can testify that they are actually dead, their wives would not be left in marital limbo, unable to remarry. If they did return within the 6 months, the divorce is as if it were never written. In the case of these curses, I wonder if the tzaddik who utters it has some faint glimmer of desire that the condition actually be fulfilled, next to his overwhelming desire that it not be fulfilled. Moshe Rabbeinu really did want Gd to forgive the people – he spent 40 days on the mountain without food or water pleading and arguing with Gd to that effect. But Moshe was human too, and several times Torah relates that Moshe just got fed up with the people’s constant kvetching and ingratitude. Perhaps a little bit of Moshe’s consciousness was ready to throw in the towel at this point. And that faint impulse, which he might not even have recognized in himself, was enough to cause some part of the curse to take hold in reality. This is of course pure speculation on my part (and has nothing to do with R. Goldin).

R. Goldin’s approach is to note that right after Moshe asks to be erased from Gd’s book, Gd replies, Whoever has sinned against me, I shall erase from My book. R. Goldin interprets Moshe’s plea as a serious attempt at vicarious atonement. “If you won’t forgive the nation, then punish me instead!” Gd absolutely refuses, essentially rebuking Moshe for thinking that he can be a stand-in for the people. Rather, everyone must forge his or her own relationship with Gd. There are no intermediaries needed or allowed. R. Goldin imagines Gd telling Moshe:
Moshe, in spite of all that has happened, you still miss the point. I will accept no intermediary or substitute when it comes to personal responsibility. You cannot effect atonement for others. Those who have sinned must directly pay the price.
… Once again, the Torah conveys the fundamental truth that is transmitted over and over again during the unfolding events at Sinai: the hallmark of divine worship is direct, personal encounter between man and Gd.

This gives us the connection to parashat Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh is all about the priesthood, and R Goldin writes:
As we have already noted, the very concept of the priesthood carries the potential danger that the Kohen will be perceived, erroneously, as an intermediary between the people and their Gd rather than as the nation’s representative within the Temple.

In other words, Moshe’s attempt at vicarious atonement caused this partial curse. To forestall further erosion of each person’s personal relationship with the Divine, the section on the priesthood was chosen as the section in which to “implement” that partial curse. The implication is that everyone must forge his or her own relationship with Gd, purifying themselves through their own practices and their own efforts, and not look to others to do the heavy lifting for them.

There is a poignant story in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 17a) about Elazar ben Dordia, who was said to have patronized every prostitute in the world. He heard of a new lady, took a fortune in gold and went to acquire her services. She remarked that, “just as my breath will never return to me, so Elazar ben Dordia will never be accepted as a penitent.” Stung by her words, he goes to a valley and asks the sun and the moon, the stars, the mountains and trees to pray for him. They all refuse, saying that they are in as much need of mercy as he is. Finally he says, “It is all up to me!” He puts his head between his knees and cries in repentance until he dies. A heavenly voice calls out “R. Elazar ben Dordia has entered the life of the world to come.”

Needless to say, the idea of vicarious atonement and the need for intermediaries between Gd and individual people is particularly fraught for those who live in predominantly Christian host societies, where the predominant religion believes in these concepts. We, on the other hand, believe that “it is all up to me.” Nobody is in anybody else’s mind or body, and nobody can exempt anybody else from the work they need to do to improve themselves. If we want to be close to Gd, we are the ones who must use the practices and techniques of our tradition to develop ourselves spiritually.

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 Eternal Flame 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, that guide us to experience the Eternal.

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.

In addition to oil for the lamps, Gd commands Moses to bring Aaron and his sons “near to yourself”: this is raising them close to the level of awareness Moses has: constant awareness of the Presence of Gd.

They are to be brought near and Moses and those who Gd has “filled with the spirit of wisdom” shall make garments for them, garments that Gd describes in great detail. The High Priest was to wear tunic, cloaks, apron, breast plate, turban, gold plate above the turban, belt and pants. These were to made of gold, linen, wool, precious stones. The ordinary priests were to wear tunics, turbans, belts and pants.

The extensive detail suggests deep symbolism, symbolizing different levels of drawing near to Gd and different levels of bringing not only the priests into harmony with Gd but bringing all of Israel and all of Nature into Harmony.

The main point for us that whatever literal garments we wear and whatever symbolic garments we wear – symbolic of our purity, our love, our harmony – we should be guided by our sense of harmony and purity: continue to increase those things which allow us to experience and radiate harmony and joy, Harmony and Joy; and continue to let fall away anything which limits joy and harmony, clouds them.

As we do this, Gd fills us more and more with the spirit of wisdom and we are able to make the materials and the garments – our innocent hearts and minds are the materials and our thoughts and actions are the garments – that enable us to serve Gd with Holiness, to serve as High Priests and priests even while walking, talking, working, playing – all the things we do in our daily life, no matter what our literal profession.

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 harmonious, joyful, loving expressions within the Oneness which is Gd, our Self, One.

Baruch HaShem