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Torah Commentary
T'tzaveh (February 23, 2013)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy


PARASHAT T’TZAVEH CONTINUES God’s instructions to Moses — although, interestingly, Moses never is mentioned in these verses. The Vilna Gaon has suggested that the reading of this portion was perhaps planned to coincide with Moses’ death in the future. Why not? Clearly God is not bound by space or by time. Therefore time, as we know it, is an irrelevant concept. Why can’t we anticipate God’s proactive mourning for God’s closest soul mate? In such light, this portion may be seen as a eulogy and also as a charge to embrace the future. Never again will God have such a direct and personal relationship with a mortal being. The dynamism of God entering into relationships now will be reflected through God’s relationship with the community. Throughout this parashah we are urged to recapture a measure of holiness. And, we are given some guidance for achieving this state.

Unlike the neighboring peoples, who believe that their leaders are descended from the gods, the ancient Israelites are preoccupied with their human lineage. In Genesis we read seemingly endless lists of descendants. Now our ancestors are instructed to carry the weight of their past on their shoulders…literally! Two stones are to be engraved with the names of the children of Israel. Aaron, as the High Priest of Israel, is to “wear” these stones as a reminder. Twice this phrase is used. But as a reminder of what? To the community of their shared heritage? To God that he represents this people? Probably both. The High Priest mediates the communication and sustains the relationship between an evolving people and God. The High Priest and God become inextricable partners in the quest for holiness.

To our modern sensibilities, the image of one garbed in the vestments of a High Priest is most dashing and humorous. I think that Disney’s princes all were inspired by the vision! Skillful engraving with precious metals and jewels also is rather commonplace among the “god-kings” of the ancient Near East. King Tut’s Tomb is one of the most visually prominent and enduring human incarnation. Blue, purple and scarlet are all colors representing royal power, especially when woven together with gold. Here is another example of how the ancient rituals have been recast for modern times. In the absence of a High Priest today, our Torah mantles, breastplates and ornaments share many features of the High Priest’s embellished robe.

While this attire and most of the practices of the ancient Israelites appear to us as superstitious and irrational, the essential message of these verses continue to resonate for all time. And, indeed, it is a comforting thought. When the ancient Israelites entered into the covenant with God (a binding covenant, with no “out-clause”), they created a national identity separate from that of others. Most of the peoples of the ancient Near East were polytheists. They believed in local oracles and practiced sacrificial rituals. The Israelites’ rejection of these, based on the memory of their shared national experiences and their quest for holiness, changed the trajectory of human history.

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