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Torah Sparks

March 3, 2012 – 9 Adar 5772

Annual: Exodus 27:20 – 30:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 503; Hertz p. 339)
Triennial: Exodus 28:31 – 29:18 (Etz Hayim p. 508; Hertz p. 342)
Maftir: Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (Etz Hayim 1135; Hertz 856)
Haftarah: I Samuel 15:2 – 34 (Etz Hayim, p. 1282; Hertz p. 996)

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Much of parashat Tetzaveh describes the golden menorah that was placed in the tabernacle, along with the procedure for lighting it. It is a precursor to the ner tamid, the eternal light that is displayed and kept illumined in our own sanctuaries.

The priests, including Aaron, the first of their line, are outfitted with sacral vestments and equipped with a gem-encrusted breastplate and the oracular urim and tummim. The terminology used for the vestments also has been adopted for the appurtenances of the Torah scroll: me’il, choshen, and so on. The bells often attached to Torah crowns and the fringes on Torah mantles also find their origin and inspiration in the priestly vestments described in our chapter. The significance of the vestments may be summarized by the inscription on the gold “tzitz” worn on the priest’s headdress: “Holy to the Lord.”

The priests’ consecration and ordination is described in graphic and dramatic detail. The occasion is marked with an elaborate sacrificial offering, and the new priests undergo a ritual washing. The priests are anointed with oil. Sacrificial blood is dashed on the altar and placed on the priests’ ears, thumbs, big toes, and vestments. The priests eat the flesh of the sacrificial ram, as well as the bread that accompanies the offering. The ordination rites are protracted, conducted over the course of seven days. An expiatory bull is sacrificed each day, and the altar undergoes a daily purification.

The daily sacrificial regimen is prescribed and God offers a consequent assurance that He will dwell among the Israelites. The parashah concludes with instructions about burning incense on the altar.

Theme #1: “Inscribe the Tribes”

“They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns. Then take two lapis lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth.” (Exodus 28:6, 9-10)

Derash: Study

“Engraving the names of the twelve tribes – six on each stone – symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs.” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“The names of all the tribes engraved on the gems and affixed to his vestments serve as a perpetual and humbling reminder of the High Priest’s role as representative of the entire community of Israel before God.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

“Whatever your relationship is to your sacred tradition in the West, you have some relationship to the Bible if only through the names of the characters.” (Anita Diament)

“There are people and nations, Mother, that I would like to say to you by name. I entrust them to you in silence, I entrust them to you in the way that you know best.” (Pope John Paul II)

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” (Pericles)

Questions for Discussion

What do Eskenazi and Weiss mean by “the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod”? Was the priest to include popular representatives in his oracular inquiries and decision making? Was he merely to be mindful of their needs and interests? Did the authority of the priesthood rest on the “consent of the governed”?

Were the engraved names an appeal for God to be mindful of Israel and its constituent parts? How does this perspective resonate in Pope John Paul II’s Marian prayer?

How might Anita Diament’s statement explain our verse? For what greater issues, narratives, and national collective memories might the list of Jacob’s sons serve as a convenient shorthand?

Whose names – whose “presence” – should we “carry” with us as we approach our daily tasks and our sacred duties?

Theme #2: “Close to the Vest”

“Inside the breastplate of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times.” (Exodus 28:30)

Derash: Study

“‘The Urim and Thummim.’ This was an inscribed Tetragrammaton, which would be put within the folds of the breast piece.” (Rashi)

“The Urim and Thummim were not made by the artisans, and were not part of the contributions brought by the community, but were a mystery transmitted to Moses directly from the Almighty, and he wrote them in holiness. And they were made in heaven.” (Nachmanides)

“The Urim and Thummim were a sort of divinely sanctioned conjuring with names, that would be put in the breast piece, to make decisions for them and help them provide for their needs.” (Rashbam)

“Aaron the high priest was to represent in his person the heart of the Jewish people. Thus, even as the heart is the first organ to feel any pain that strikes the body, so Aaron felt the suffering of every Jew and would pray for him. He wears the breastplate of judgment over his heart to show that whenever suffering will come to the Children of Israel, their pain will be very close to his heart and he will pray to the Lord to annul the evil decree.” (Be’er Mayim Chaim)

“Go to your bosom: Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” (William Shakespeare)

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” (Abraham Lincoln)

“Religion is a matter of the heart. No physical inconvenience can warrant abandonment of one's own religion.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Questions for Discussion

What did the placement of the Urim and Thummim remind the priest to keep “close to his heart”? His relationship and obligations to God? The needs and suffering of the people Israel? The consequential nature of the decisions he rendered? The central symbolic and psychological role he occupied in the life of the nation?

What ideas/values/priorities would you hope a trusted and influential religious leader would keep close to her or his heart today?

Are the views of Nachmanides (that the Urim and Thummim were entirely of another world, divine in nature) and Be’er Mayim Chaim (that they were focused on empathy for human pain and adversity) mutually exclusive?

If the oracular devices used by the priest were otherworldly in origin, what personal role did the priest play in the decision process? Was he merely a vessel or a vehicle for revelation? How do (or should) rabbinic decisors today balance the divine aspect of revealed law with their own perspectives, sensibilities, and the needs of the community as they perceive them?

Historic Note

Parashat Zachor, read on March 3, 2012, prescribes our obligation “to remember” the genocidal designs of Amalek and, in particular, that nation’s ruthless early attack on the Jewish people. On March 3, 1933, 100 prisoners were taken to a school in the small town of Norha near the city of Weimar. They were interrogated and placed under guard by policemen and students from the school. This is considered the start of Germany’s first concentration camp.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Shabbat Parshat Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor falls this year on 9 Adar. According to the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 580:1-2, this date is among the “days of misfortune” to be observed as a fast day. The fast is intended to express contrition for the historic pattern of dissension – the philosophical and halakhic rift – between the schools of Shammai and Hillel and their respective followers. Since this year the ninth of Adar falls on Shabbat, no fasting is permitted: on that halakhic point Hillel and Shammai were in agreement! Perhaps the fast is also related to the Talmud’s statement (Sota 47b) that “When the disciples of Hillel and Shammai increased who had not studied with their teachers sufficiently, dissensions increased in Israel and the Torah became like two Torahs.” Even if we must forego the fast, the 9th of Adar is a fitting time to contemplate how we might redress the Jewish communal ills of religious infighting and neglect of Jewish study.

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