D’var Torah

Howard J. Warner DDS

15th of Adar I, 5784
(February 24, 2024)

      Tetzaveh literally means “you command”. This parshah details the specific ritual clothing and procedures to be used by High Priest Aaron and his priestly children. The reading of this parshah is G-d’s direct instruction to Moses who is an active participant. But Moses’ name is not used unlike any other parshah of Exodus. I provide a synthesis of ideas from Maimonides, Rashi, Nachmanides, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chabad, Rabbi Moshe Shmaryahu, and Rabbi Micah Friedman.

     Study of Jewish thought reveals many conflicting ideas which form the basis of Talmudic arguments and commentary. One conflict includes whether the Torah should be understood in a chronological order or according to a Midrashic perspective that “there is no early and late in Torah”. This allowed Rashi to relate the building of the Mishkan or Tabernacle as a reaction to the sin of the Golden Calf, though this story is detailed in Ki Tisa which follows Tetzaveh. Further, Maimonides believed that the sacrificial system of the Tabernacle was intended as a temporary measure to wean the Israelites off years of exposure to Egyptian sacrificial rites for their gods and pharaohs during their period of slavery.

     But, Nachmanides argues that the Torah is essentially chronological. Then the Mishkan was envisioned by G-d to provide a sacred space for a people needing a tangible way to recognize a faceless and nameless G-d. As a communal area this provides a national project to engage together and experience the presence of G-d. In this way the Tabernacle stands on its own.

     The children of Israel make a Golden Calf to worship expressing fear and idolatry in the wilderness and dependence upon their leader Moshe Rabeinu. G-d decides to destroy these people but Moses implores him to alter his decree. He would rather be stricken from the Torah should G-d not relent. In this parshah his name is not used which is symbolic of this encounter. The people have left Egypt where human and animal sacrifice was practiced. This pagan cult practice proved too hard to remove rapidly and entirely. The compromise is a Tabernacle where a pure animal is used not to feed G-d, but to set the Israelite rite apart from Egyptian practice. Animals used in the Israelite ritual would be insulting to the Egyptians since rams and sheep were sacred in ancient Pharaonic Egypt. As a replacement of statuary pagan gods, the High Priest wears ornate garments as a symbol of G-d’s holiness. Remaking practices of neighboring nations is an essential uniqueness of ancient Israelite religion. The Tabernacle rite allows this change.

     We must examine the role of leadership. Ancient Israel depended upon prophets since its origin. Abraham recognizes G-d as the sole power commanding the universe. He rejected the pagan and meaningless gods and starts a new religion. His son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob, continued this tradition. When poor harvests force Jacob’s family to go to Egypt, a period of slavery and exile begins. The emergence of Moses begins a period of freedom and recovered nationhood. But prophetic power depends upon the personality of the individual. The monarchy and priesthood serve to unify a growing population with family diversity.
After the death of Joshua, the appointed heir to Moses who leads the Israelites to the Promised Land, comes the period of Judges. During this time the tribal nature of the Israelites continues, so national unity is missing. The people urge Judge and Prophet Samuel to anoint a king who could unify the nation and protect them from their enemies. Saul is a strong leader but he is paranoid and fails to follow Samuel’s directions. Therefore, David is anointed and remains king despite his human failings. The king is a secular leader. The kingship is an inherited position separating religious functions from state power. The inherited priestly class provides spiritual purpose, instruction, and ritual providing certainty. Less personal than the prophet, the priest could be replaced by the community.

     But humans are subject to personal weakness. A leader, whether king or priest could be corrupted. Separation of these roles limits the danger that could result from a corrupt individual. During the Hasmonaean period the kingship and priesthood were combined. As a result, the Romans took control of ancient Israel destroying the Temple and forcing exile (or diaspora). The lesson is dramatic.

     So, the role of the priest is critical in ancient Israel where a tangible process connected the people with their G-d. With the loss of the Temple, the rabbi has assumed the role of religious leader and the Talmud serves as our tangible guide toward spirituality. Our modern rituals are detailed in the “Code of Jewish Law” or “Shulchan Aruch”, written by Rabbi Joseph Caro.

     The garments of the priest are extravagant with jewels. Judaism generally teaches modesty. On Yom Kippur, the priest wore plain, white, linen clothing. This idea of purity and simplicity is a Jewish value. During ancient times the wealthy would bury their dead with jewels and fancy clothing that could embarrass most Israelites. The Sage Rabbi Gamliel determined to end this by being buried in simple white linens, despite his status as Sanhedrin leader, being a descendent of King David, and Hillel’s grandson. Today we continue this practice in the taharah. The Rambam believed the resurrection of the dead will occur when the Mashiach appears; they will be dressed in these simple clothing as they approach God.

     While Noah was righteous in his time, he did not argue for saving others from ruin. Abraham argues for good people in Sodom and Gomorrah, but not for the wicked. Moses argues for the wicked after the Golden Calf event. He understands the frailty of mankind. His belief in G-d transcends worldly means so he talks directly with G-d. After the Golden Calf Moses will build his own Tent in which G-d and he interact. In this tent Moses records the Torah during the 40 years of wilderness, according to traditional belief. G-d allows free will, so human errors need redemption. The Tabernacle provides redemption. Centuries later a more permanent Jerusalem Temple is built, since we are fallible. Most need a ritual link to spirituality. As tangible beings few consider the abstract. That is the role of prophets, with whom the Sages claim their roots.

     The prophet is a social critic chosen by G-d. Prophets are men or women from any social strata. They awaken people from their slumber, criticizing societal behavior. Moses is charismatic but needs ceremonial Aaron to forge a nation. Aaron speaks for the tongue-scarred Moses. Nationhood requires cooperation. After years of Egyptian exile, two brothers aided by sister Prophetess Miriam continue the Abrahamic imperative with ritual comfortable for average people.

     In our synagogue spirituality is the role of the rabbi who teaches and guides. Temple Israel selects leaders based upon ability, not inheritance. Elected executives and board manage the functions of the synagogue, like the Sanhedrin, kings, and judges. Committees provide specialized expertise, just as the priestly garments and Tabernacle were fabricated by craftsmen. Wise leaders are our prophets. Our synagogue is a collaborative effort.

Shabbat Shalom