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Most of the latter part of the book of Exodus is concerned with the construction and operation of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, yet within this larger topic the portions do have distinct themes. This week's portion, Tetzaveh, is concerned with the priests [Kohanim] who perform the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Rules and descriptions are given for the complex ritual garments of the high priest- replete with gold and adornments of precious stones - as well as a seven-day period of sacrifices and rituals to sanctify the priests for services.

Moshe is told that Aaron, his brother, and Aaron's sons, will serve as the priests of the new Sanctuary. The parsha ends with a short description of the golden altar upon which incense was offered.

Big Ideas Summary

  1. Moses is missing. Why?

  2. How are we like olive oil?

  3. Why was Aaron appointed High Priest and not Moses?

  4. The notion of God dwelling among us.

  5. What about clothing causes respect?

Big Ideas Elaboration

‘You shall command the Israelites, and they shall take for you pure pressed oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually…’

‘You shall bring near to yourself your brother Aaron … to minister to Me’ (27:20, 28:1).

Moses is Missing

It is well known that Moses’ name is conspicuously absent in this Parsha. The above two verses – introducing God’s Commandments to Moses, are not written in the usual form: indeed the Parsha does not open with the usual: ‘God spoke to Moses saying…’

In addition, the main themes of the Parsha – all Divine instructions - seem to follow an unusual sequence. They are, in order, the oil for the daily lighting of the candelabrum, the garments of the High Priest and officiating Priests, the initiation process of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), the twice-daily offerings, and building of the Inner Altar for the frankincense. The expected order is the one in Parshiot Vayakhel and Pekudei: where it relates that the inner altar was constructed directly after the main, outer altar. So why was the command to build the inner altar omitted from its expected location in the previous Parsha, Teruma, and put much later, at the very end of Parshat Tetzaveh?

The story of the Golden Calf is related several chapters further on. However, Rashi, following the Talmud (Pesachim 6b), derives that that event took place before the order to build the Mishkan: ‘there is no time order to the events in the Torah’.

After the Israelites sinned, and the active participants had been punished, Moses approached God for a second time and asked Him to forgive the Israelites. This time he stated that if God would not forgive the people, ‘erase me from the Book (the Torah) You have written’ (32:32). Rashi there explains that Moses wanted his name removed from the whole Torah, lest people would say that he was unsuccessful in obtaining God’s mercy for His people.

We are Compared to Olive Oil

The Zohar and other Midrashim, liken our Jewish identity, (or ‘Godly soul’ as it is often called) to olive oil:

  • Like olive oil, it is hidden and requires effort to reveal it. Like oil, it can never really be mixed and always floats above all other liquids (similarly, Jews, even the assimilated, always seem to stand out as Jews).

  • Oil, if dropped on a solid will spread out and soak in (similarly Jews are interested and involved in everything).

  • Oil makes light. (our purpose as Jews is to be a light unto the nations)

Why was Aaron Appointed High Priest and Not Moshe?

Here is a portion of an article by Rabbi Steven Nathon (Reconstructionist).

A midrash tells us that during the seven days when Moses was at the burning bush each day he pleaded with God to send someone else (which we know from the Torah text). In the end of the midrash, God informs Moses that because of his unwillingness to take on the task during those seven days he will not be permitted to ascend to the priesthood. Rather, it is Aaron and his descendants who will become the priests. However, for seven days, when the Mishkan is dedicated, Moses will be allowed to perform the priestly functions, but not after that.

Moses' reaction to what might be perceived as a punishment is to rejoice over the good fortune of his elder brother Aaron. After all, Midrash tells us, one reason why Moses is reluctant to take on the leadership role is because he is afraid that Aaron will be jealous that his younger brother is the leader of the people. However, God informs him that Aaron will rejoice at seeing Moses and hearing that he is to lead the mission to Pharaoh, and indeed he does. For this Aaron is rewarded; let “that same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother [have] precious stones (the priestly breastplate) set upon it.”

And so Aaron rejoices at God's choice of Moses as leader and Moses then rejoices at the choice of Aaron as high priest, even though the Midrash portrays this as Moses' punishment for not being eager to go on God's mission. Nevertheless, when Moses is given the instructions on how to build the Mishkan he tells God in a Midrash that he is ready and able to serve as priest. How can this be so if had been informed at the burning bush that Aaron was to serve priest and if Moses himself had actually rejoiced over this? Zornberg likens this phenomenon to the Freudian concept that often our memories are forgotten so that we can then proceed in the “remaking of something [that] to all intents and purposes never existed; [for] memory is [in part] a way of inventing the past.” (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, p. 360). We all know of times in our lives when we “conveniently” forget something and then are stunned when we later “discover” it. When Moses “learns” that Aaron is to become priest and that he is to be “demoted” to the status of a mere Levite (as will his sons) he does not react negatively. Rather, he rejoices, just as Aaron rejoiced in Moses' choice earlier on.

The choice of Aaron, the elder brother, as priest now means that the rejection of the elder in favor of the younger that runs through the entire book of Bereshit/Genesis has now been “set right.” Moses, the younger, may indeed be the leader, but his sons not only do not inherit his position, but they are all but forgotten in our narrative. It is Aaron, the elder, who is given the religious leadership position that will then be inherited by his sons.

The rejection of Moses and his sons and the reversal of the ancient patterns could easily be viewed by Moses with anger or disdain. And yet it is not. The relationship between Moses and Aaron is one that involves both loss and gain for each brother while at the same time involving altruistic love of each brother for the other that is symbolized by their reactions when the other is chosen.

In the Torah we are told that Moses' primary attributes were that of greatness and humility. In reality it is his humility that is at the heart of his greatness. Though Aaron is appointed “kohen gadol” (literally, great priest) Moses' humility allows him to rejoice, much as his humility caused him to reject God's initial call for fear that Aaron would be hurt. This is the meaning underlying the seemingly innocuous “and as for you” that begins the command for Moses to prepare the oil, decorate the courtyard of the Mishkan and instruct others to prepare Aaron's garments. In this way the “and as for you” is not viewed as further punishment for Moses' initial reticence (i.e., God saying “And as for you if you're going to hesitate to follow my orders not only am I going to take away the priesthood, but I am going to make you prepare everything for your brother the priest and then let you serve as priest for seven days only so you can then hand the duties over to him!) Instead, it becomes an acknowledgement of Moses' humility and his ability to to rejoice for his brother (Read as, “And as for you, you have shown your greatness through your humility and your concern for your brother , and so you shall have the pleasure of preparing all that he needs to begin his priestly service, including dedicating the sanctuary that is then to be his domain from then on.”)

After all the generations of brothers fighting, stealing from, and even killing one another throughout Bereyshit we finally have an example of brothers who can care about each other and work together in cooperation. I would like to be able to say that this is what is at the heart of every sibling relationship, but as we all know, sibling rivalry is as much a part of these relationships as is sibling love. As a matter of fact, in many, if not most cases, there is always a time when rivalry seems to outweigh love and caring. It is at these times that we need to remember that we are the descendants of the characters of Shemot as well as those we find in Bereyshit .. We have the ability within us to rise to the occasion by humbling ourselves and caring for others, as did Moses. We may not be able to do this all the time, but we can certainly try. In that way we can read our own “and as for you,” spoken to us by our unconscious mind, as a reminder to us of the rewards we receive for caring for our siblings, other family members and friends, rather than as a chastisement for not fulfilling our obligations and our potential.

What Does the Notion of God Dwelling Among Us Mean?

Some understand it literally. The Sforno (16th century commentator) explains that God commanded the building of the Mishkan so that He would be able to accept your sacrifices willingly, and to hear your prayers.

Many commentators find it hard to understand God's closeness in such a literal way. The medieval Portuguese commentator (15th century) Abravenel says that the Mishkan is a symbol. We were commanded to build the Mishkan "so that the people would not think that the Lord has forsaken the earth, and say that He resides in the heavens and is distanced from human beings." We require concrete symbols to teach us abstract ideas.

Benno Jacob (19th century commentator) says that Mishkan brings about a change in us, which in turn brings us closer to God. He writes that the Mishkan and God's closeness are not 'a cause and an effect', but rather – 'a preparation and end result'. We need to prepare ourselves to bring ourselves closer to God. R. Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote poetry about the Mishkan each of us builds in our heart.

Each of these commentators has turned the idea of God's closeness into something more abstract that is easier for us to grasp. It is hard to accept that God is imminent. Abraham Joshua Heschel (20th century theologian) writes that religious life is about 'Living in the Neighbourhood of God'. It is difficult for us to conceive of a God who is so close and so caring. That is the whole idea. The Mishkan stands in our midst to help us realize how close God really is.

Why so much emphasis on the clothing of the Kohen Gadol?

Great detailed descriptions are given of the complex ritual garments of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest–regally resplendent in gold and adornments of precious stones.

Like all the other implements that will be used in the Tabernacle for the worship of God, the priestly garments are to be made of the finest materials, to be both functional and splendid. The costume of the high priest especially is very symbolic of the Kohen Gadol’s responsibility to serve on behalf of the people.

From Rabbi Zvi Leshem (ultra-Orthodox):

Last week we learned about the mishkan and its vessels. Now we travel further inward, to study the uniform of the Kohanim. The Rabbis teach that only when uniformed are the priests really priests, and without proper garments they are liable for the death penalty! Rav Y.M. Poupko taught us that the function of a uniform is to de-emphasize the individual in favor of his role, and that in the mishkan everything must be done exactly as the Tora dictates, for if not, it may be idolatry!

One of these garments is the avnet, a sash worn around the waist. Today the chassideshe gartel approximates this. The Gemara states that the avnet atones for sinful thoughts, and it is often said that that the gartel separates one's higher spiritual half from the lower physical one. The Bet Yaacov deepens this idea. There are three centers in the human body. The brain is the spiritual center, while the heart is the seat of the emotions and the genitals express the most powerful of the physical urges. The ultimate question is; where does my heart go? Is it primarily elevated do to the influence of the brain, or is it drawn towards hedonistic pursuit by the intense influences of the body? The avnet (or gartel) is worn around the waist as a statement that I want to direct my heart upwards towards my brain, and not downwards to my body. One of the reasons some chassidim don't wear neckties is not to divide the brain from the heart, and one of the reasons for peot is to connect between those two. The avnet is however worn only at times of prayer or Temple service. One's physical side must also find proper outlets that are themselves another aspect of holistic avodat haShem.

The Mai HaShiloach points out that the high priest wears both the zitz, a headband with the name of God inscribed upon it, and michnasayim, breeches, in order to cover the genitals. This teaches us that even one who has reached the spiritual level of having God's named inscribed upon him must nonetheless always be on guard to protect his basic moral behavior. In a society in which we are endlessly bombarded by immoral messages, we always need to be on guard not to sully our Tora with anything that is not strictly sanctioned by halacha.

Here is a Drash from Rabbi Jordan Cohen, reprinted from My Jewish Learning

“Clothes make the man,” the old saying goes. Well, clothes certainly do seem to impress us human beings. Nothing tells you more about a person, or makes a greater first impression, than how one is dressed. It’s quite remarkable, really. A person’s entire character can be summed up by someone who does not know them 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. That’s how they make their money. And so do schools and the military.

The whole point of putting people into uniforms 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. When we do want to stand out, we can do so through what we wear.

The Torah certainly understands this as well. In this week’s parashah, more than forty verses, an unusually high number for any single topic, are devoted to the subject of the Bigdei Kodesh, the holy clothing or ritual garments for the high priests. “Make Bigdei Kodesh–holy garments–for Aaron your brother,” Moses is told, “for dignity and splendor.” Most of the rest of this text is elaboration of this command; details of how these garments are to be made.

So what is so important about the garments of the High Priest? Does not Judaism, particularly in a ritual sense, usually focus on the inner qualities, frowning on such outward materialism as clothing? How then can these 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 Hiddur Mitzvah–the enhancement of the fulfillment 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.

But Ramban (Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) notes that the commandment to dress the High Priest in garments for glory (kavod ) and splendor (tiferet) is not only to enhance the status of the priest himself, but also to enhance the glory of God.

Ramban notes that in the mystical teachings, kavod and tiferet are Sefirot, Kabbalistic terms for emanations of God. And so, through these very specific types of garments worn by the Priest, God is connecting with the people and God’s presence amongst the people is further demonstrated. In some way, the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out in the priest and worn on the outside with his clothing.

Just as the crown and royal colors command the respect of a people for a king, and enhance his position among his people, so too the Bigdei Kodesh add much to the honor and esteem of the High Priest, and to the Divine One whom the High Priest serves.

Through dressing in special garments, the priest is constantly reminded of his special role, and the sanctity of his calling. It is a symbol, a reminder. But Bigdei Kodesh–holy clothes–are only holy when they cover Ish Kodesh–a holy person. To be an Ish Kadosh one does not need to be a priest. We all have the potential for such holiness. Perhaps we just need to dress the part….

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