Tetzaveh - An Old Symbol in a New Context
One of the biggest dangers of reading our Torah is our inability to put ourselves into the context of the section with which we are interacting. It can, on occasion, be incredibly difficult to understand the motivations and the processes that these characters go through, especially when held up alongside the way that our own lives function. It is not unreasonable, then, to ask ourselves on a frequent basis: what am I supposed to learn about my modern life from this book that takes place so very long ago, and under such vastly different circumstances?
But this week, we see a reflection of so many of our own traditions mirrored in the text. No, it isn’t that these practices are identical today to the ones we read about thousands of years ago. But if we look closely enough, we can see the thread of tradition, running from Parashat Tetzaveh to today.
The portion begins with the description of the process for creating the ritual garb that Aaron and the priests will wear during their sacred work. But it isn’t just that we are supposed to make nice clothes. God reminds us of the importance of craftsmanship, and the holiness of the work of our hands. Exodus 28:3 reads, “Next, you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.” As we’ve seen a few times to this point already, the Torah articulates a very clear purpose for launching into a detailed description of logistics. None of the process matters for how to create these artifacts if we don’t first consider the holy work that the priests are empowered to do, and to reflect, as the text describes, that Aaron is being consecrated not for his own upliftment, but very specifically in service to God. God, the text reminds us, is the one who bequeaths talents to the people, and those talents are best employed in service to a higher purpose. Anyone who has ever experienced a natural gift for a particular skill can feel that inherent grace that comes with good, meaningful work, making it very easy to imagine that these kinds of abilities come from a divine source.
What comes next, in keeping with the recent theme, is a long explanation of the logistics for constructing the clothes and tools that the priests will use during their work. If you were to go into a synagogue today, you wouldn’t find any rabbi wearing any of these pieces in the way that they are described. But that does not mean that they don’t exist. As a matter of fact, many of the descriptions of ritual artifacts are preserved in the way we adorn our Torah. We, as it describes in Exodus 28:4, place a tunic of sorts on the Torah as a covering, followed by a sash (the wimple that holds the scroll together), a breast-plate, a headdress, and more. Despite the significant changes rendered over time to the office of the priesthood, it is actually quite startling to see how well preserved these traditions and customs are, considering the very different context in which they currently reside.
One of the perhaps most fascinating images we see is the description of the 12 stones used to adorn Aaron’s breast-plate. We read, “You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design...Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper.” (Ex. 28:15, 17-20) Other than asking the reasonable question as to where we would have gotten such a collection of gems while wandering in the desert, we also arrive at the conclusion that this image is familiar to many of us. We have, over time, preserved it as a symbol of our 12 tribes, bonding us together in one tapestry of light and color. Many synagogues are adorned with such quilted arrays of gems, and it has even been rendered as a piece of jewelry to be worn as a sign of Jewish identity. Over and over again, this chapter shows us the way that we can maintain the beauty of a particular symbol, even while transporting the application of that symbol to a new place or a new purpose.
This is, after all, the thing that binds every generation of Jews together. Throughout history, we have each been handed the same sacred text and been told to create meaning for ourselves. In some places we have preserved things nearly perfectly; our Passover ritual has changed very, very little over the past two thousand years, preserving a tradition that is transmitted in its entirety. Meanwhile, other traditions, like our sacrificial cult (which we will talk about quite a bit more in the book of Leviticus, just you wait), have been entirely rendered obsolete, instead focusing our attention on replacement traditions, like worship services and personal prayer. But, perhaps the most common way to process the tradition that is handed to us is to find ways to bring the ancient tradition to a more relatable and accessible modality. Earlier in the book of Exodus, we read about the way that the Israelites marked their doorposts with blood, in order to remind the Angel of Death that God’s people were dwelling there. While we no longer use the blood of a sacrificed animal to remind God and others where Jews reside, we do mark our doors with a mezuzah, a symbolic and often artistic rendering of this tradition. We continue to preserve the consecration of an ark in our sanctuaries, housing our book of laws in order that we beautify and adorn our sacred texts with physical manifestations of beauty that are meant to partner with the imaginative brilliance found within.
Time and time again, we ask our texts to offer us something of value, even thousands of years after their context has come and gone. And this week’s Torah portion reminds us of the essential value of symbolism and tradition that echo throughout time. While the ways that we live out these mandates continues to change and fluctuate, the essential detail remains the same: we are called to create beautiful and meaningful things, so that we can be reminded of the beauty of being in partnership with God. In each generation, we put our own unique spin on the way we live out that mandate in our own lives. And it is entirely likely that the ways we enjoy Judaism today will be different from the ways our great grandchildren experience their own version of our tradition. But the scarlet thread that connects every Jew to the past and every Jew to the future is our willingness to continually reimagine how to bring the best of our heritage to life in our own day, our own context, our own understanding.