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Parashat Shelah 5781

June 4, 2021

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The Arc of the Covenant
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shelah
By Rabbi Enid Lader (’10)

What does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to be in a covenant with God? It seems to me that the Children of Israel – we – have been on a trajectory of learning about holiness and covenant ever since we were brought out of Egypt, stood at Sinai’s foot and heard these words of God from Moses:

וּמֹשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו ה’ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

… and Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel:

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.

וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכׇּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כׇּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine,

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” [Ex. 19:3-6]

We will come to know that this covenant with the Eternal makes demands on us and our behavior; in return for following the commands and sacred responsibilities, we will be rewarded with God’s presence and Divine support. And we will also come to know that if we stray from the Divine expectations, there will be negative consequences. That is the nature of covenant.

And what about the nature of holiness? What does it mean to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” and is there a common thread of holiness between the priests and the people? I propose that the answer (or at least the beginning of an answer) to that question begins in Exodus and continues through to the culminating verses in this week’s Torah portion.

Holiness will be found in place, in behavior, in time, and in clothing.

In Exodus 25, God instructs Moses to accept gifts from all those whose heart moves them:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

Moses will be in charge of the building of a Mikdash – a sanctuary – K-D-Sh – a holy place – for God to dwell among the people. And the building materials will be brought by the people as gifts; they will be engaged in a holy endeavor to build a holy place.

The book of Leviticus lays out the holy behavior in two ways. First, the rituals of sacrifices and offerings, purification, and sanctification, as carried out by the priests and the people. Each one has their place. Each one has their role. And second, what does it mean to be holy? Where people are concerned, “being holy” is an action word:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the

Eternal your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:1-2)

Because we are a treasured people, because we are to be a holy nation, and because the Eternal is holy, we are to be holy. And that involves a whole list of behaviors from revering parents to celebrating Shabbat, to leaving the corners of our fields for those who are in need, to not letting the people in our community get away with behaving badly, to not standing idly by the blood of our neighbor, to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. And the list goes on. THIS is what it means to BE holy. We are not told to go off and sit by ourselves on a mountain top, but we are told to go out into our world and make it the best it can be.

Leviticus’s arc of holiness extends to time and the calendar year. Shabbat, Pesah, Shavuot, Yom Teruah (the day of sounding the blasts of the shofar), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Sukkot – all of them sacred occasions:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם מוֹעֲדֵ֣י ה’ אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ אֵ֥לֶּה הֵ֖ם מוֹעֲדָֽי׃

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. (Lev. 23:1-2)

Holiness in time… for all the Israelite people. Not just the priests. Everyone will have their role to play. And everyone is called upon to make time for rest and renewal in this holy context.

And what about holiness in clothing? We could jump back to the book of Exodus to the descriptions of the clothing of the priests – Ex. 28, and their making – Ex. 39. And move on to the book of Leviticus where Aaron and his sons are invested as priests and don their priestly (and holy) clothing.

And what about the Israelites? What are we called upon to wear that could connect us to holiness? This brings us to the concluding verses of this week’s Torah portion – Shelah:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

The Eternal said to Moses as follows:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם וְנָ֥תְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue (tekhelet) to the fringe at each corner.

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת ה’ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.

לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם׃

Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.

אֲנִ֞י ה’ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Eternal am your God. (Num. 15:37-41)

We are instructed to place tzitzit – fringes – at the corners of our garment, and to include a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. What is the purpose of this? So that when we look at the tzitzit, we will remember that we are in covenant with the Eternal. We have sacred responsibilities and commandments to observe, and our behavior (and our eyes and hearts) should not wander in a different direction. And, as we observe these sacred responsibilities, we will be holy to God. The God Who brought us out of the land of Egypt – on eagles’ wings – to be our God.

And is there a thread that connects this aspect of holiness to the priests? Recall the clothing of the High Priest – the breast piece, the ephod, the robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. Taking a closer look at the headdress, it included what was called the tzitz – a frontlet of pure gold that was inscribed with the words: “Kodesh l’Adonai” – Holy to the Eternal. To the tzitz was attached a cord of blue – tekhelet, to provide a way of attaching it to the head of the priest. Its purpose was “… to take away any sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate… to win acceptance for them from the Eternal.” (Ex. 28:38)

As the High Priest’s tzitz and precise observance called to mind the people’s holiness before God, so the tzitzit at the corners of our tallit remind each of us of our holiness before God: in place, in behavior, in time, and in clothing. And through that holiness, our eternal covenant.
Rabbi Enid C. Lader received ordination from AJR in 2010, is the rabbi at Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the past-president of ARC (The Association of Rabbis and Cantors – the only joint rabbinical and cantorial professional organization in America), and is the treasurer of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.