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Parashat Tetzaveh

February 15, 2011

By Rabbi Dorit Edut

As a young girl, I was often warned when thinking about something not to wrinkle my forehead lest I end up with the multi-lined foreheads of my uncle and my grandfather, a positive physical feature for them as serious, male, patent attorneys. When I first heard that emotions and experiences could be etched into our faces as in the expression “It was written all over his forehead,” I began to periodically examine my forehead and look at others this way as well. Then this week I came upon the probable origins of all this forehead attention as I read in our Torah portion, Exodus 28:36-38:

“You shall make a frontlet of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: ‘Holy to the Lord’ … It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may take away any sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate, from any of their sacred donations; it shall be on his forehead at all times, to win acceptance for them before the Lord” (New JPS translation).

This tzitz, or frontlet, was something that Aaron and the subsequent High Priests wore as part of their special garments to distinguish them in their service to God. However, this particular accessory had its own special power or function.

We have to imagine what it was like to face the High Priest, bringing our offerings, and having this “glistening” gold plate shining from his forehead, broadcasting the message “HOLY TO THE LORD.” It would certainly cause anyone to pause a moment. As the Talmud (Shabbat 63b) explains, this tzitz was designed to obtain forgiveness for the sin of effrontery, of extreme hutzpah. It gave rise to a modern Hebrew expression:

Lo l’shakeir b’metzah n’hushah, meaning “Don’t lie shamelessly.”

In other words, the Talmud describes its purpose as to stop anyone from bringing an offering that they knew was not 100% pure and thus not acceptable. It recognizes that we are all fallible humans, at times telling ourselves that we may let something important slide or be done half-heartedly, telling ourselves that “It’s good enough” when in fact we know that it really is not.

Yet we do have our own reminders to bring us back into checking in with ourselves, to look if we are acting or thinking with an awareness of God’s Presence in our lives. For example, over the Ark in many synagogues is the Hebrew verse Da Lifnei Mi Atta Omeid,”Know Before Whom You Stand.” Of course, the tefillin, especially the shel rosh, the portion wound around our heads for the daily prayers, is another example of this physical, mental, and spiritual refocusing device.

But the tzitz also gave the High Priest a supernatural purifying power, to filter out any defect that might actually be (unintentionally) in the holy offerings, so that they could be used after all as sacrificial offerings. Rashi explains that this could not, however, mean that a High Priest would be forgiven for knowingly offering something impure. If anything, wearing this frontlet on his forehead “at all times” really meant, according to Ibn Ezra, that he was to be ever-mindful of living in a way that was holy and acceptable to God. He was to hold himself to a higher standard always and inspire others to do so, too.

The lines in our foreheads will appear at a certain time in our life, regardless of how we may try to avoid them or cosmetically cover them up. Rather let us look at them as a reminder, too, that we are here to use all the gifts of life that we have been given, and the ones we continue to receive from others, to the best of our abilities. May we face others with compassion and respect, not aggression, harsh judgment or ridicule. Looking at the face of another person, let us see, as the Hassidic masters taught, the four letters that form the unspeakable Name of God etched in the eyes, nose, mouth and forehead; and let us read in those lines that we are all seeking acceptance in the eyes of our Creator.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Dorit Edut, a rabbi without walls, Detroit, Michigan, AJR ’06.

Rabbi Edut dedicates this D’var Torah in memory of her paternal grandparents, Berta and Martin Seligsohn, whose yahrzeits are this week.