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Torah Commentary
T'tzaveh (March 3, 2012)

Leah Kadosh, Coordinator of School and Family Learning

THIS WEEK’s TORAH PORTION, T’tzaveh, is actually a continuation of last week’s parshah, T’rumah, in which God relays the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and the design of the priestly vestments. In the weeks leading up to T’rumah and T’tzaveh, the Israelite population witnesses and greatly benefits from God’s divine power and protection on several different occasions and seems to have been provided enough physical proof that the one and only God is very much with them and among them at all times. After God delivers the Israelites out of bitter slavery, the people experience firsthand the miraculous parting of the Reed Sea; their prayers of hunger and thirst are fulfilled upon receiving nourishment in the wilderness; and they are blessed with the granting of the Ten Commandments in addition to other laws. They then are left alone with Aaron, as their leader Moses is commanded to ascend Mount Sinai and remains there for 40 days and 40 nights. (Exodus 24:18)

It is during this 40-day period that Moses is given the task and exact specifications for constructing the portable Tabernacle (as described in T’rumah) and priestly vestments for Aaron and his sons in T’tzaveh. God dictates the instructions only to Moses, as God’s blueprints leave nothing for human interpretation. Fabrics, colors, materials and patterns for the priestly uniforms are provided orally to Moses by God and will be made by those “who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill.” (Exodus 28:3) After studying this portion, the reader is left pondering, why are God’s instructions so detailed, and why do they leave nothing to the imagination of the Israelites’ creative hands?

Recorded in past Jewish scholarship, the question of chronology in the Torah has been disputed and challenged. Eleventh century biblical commentator Rashi expressed his opinion that the Israelite creation of the Golden Calf found in Ki Tisa, actually occurred before the planning of the Mishkan, even though T’rumah is read two weeks before Ki Tisa in the sequence of Exodus. In the episode of the Golden Calf, the Israelites not only defy the most quintessential concern of the Ten Commandments and monotheistic tradition, but they also prove that they cannot accept that their God is not a physically tangible being. Biblical scholar Nehama Leibowitz suggests, “The sin of the Golden Calf indicated that the people were unable to grasp an abstract monotheism.” The building of the Tabernacle and the mandatory uniform the priests will have to wear in order to preside over its functions is perhaps a compromise between God and the Israelite people. Although God does not desire a physical “home,” the Israelites reveal their need to have a concrete reminder of God. Once there is a structure for God’s dwelling place, the position of maintenance and responsibility over the Tabernacle must be arranged, and therefore, Aaron and his sons are chosen for this honorary task. (Exodus 28:1) If the Israelites are going to have a physical representation of their God, then it will have to be created in accordance to God’s will.

Following Rashi’s reasoning that the episode of the Golden Calf occurs before the instruction of the Tabernacle, God is left with no choice but to distrust the Israelites with respect to their loyalty and faith. Upon being left alone in the wilderness, the Israelites, aided by Aaron, collect their gold and form an idol in the shape of a calf to bestow sacrificial offerings and praise. If the Israelites simply are given the task to build God a sanctuary and design clothing for those responsible for performing sacrifices, then this can result in the creation of pagan images and other polytheistic paraphernalia. Another reason God provides specific instructions could be that God does not want the Israelites to focus on the physical but, rather, its significance. If Moses is not given precise specifications of God’s dwelling place and the design of his brother’s and nephews’ attires, then perhaps the outcomes will be too extravagant and therefore inappropriate to fulfill their sacred purposes. Aaron and his sons’ roles as cohanim (priests) need to be marked by special and specific clothing: functional, beautiful and ornate, and yet, at the same time, not divine or monarchical. God ensures that God will be in control over this sacred project in the commanded detail of instructions.

With such specific direction, it is surprising that God leaves the actual construction to be done by “all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill.” (Exodus 28:3) God also does not provide the materials to be used in the building of the Tabernacle nor the cohanim’s vestments. The entire Israelite community has the opportunity to contribute a variety of precious gifts, and the Tabernacle and priests’ clothing are formed completely by the populations’ donations. We read in Exodus 25:2: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The construction of the Mishkan mirrors that of the creation of the Golden Calf, however, with the exception of one major difference: God commands the building of the Mishkan. Assembled under the supervision and direction of God, the people are granted their hands-on construction project that they prove they need. Although this time, the physical reminder of God’s presence is not in idol form but in the way of sacred furniture, functional and ornate clothing and lasting symbols of our heritage.


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