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Parashat Tetzaveh

February 18, 2016

by Hazzan Marcia Lane

Just as last week’s parashah described in great detail the making of the mishkan — the Tabernacle — this week’s Torah portion describes in great detail the design and fabrication of the vestments for Aaron, who was to become the High Priest, and for his sons, who would help him to perform the rituals of the priesthood in the Tabernacle. Each of the elements of the vestments functions in a manner that is parallel to the function of the Tabernacle itself; each is a reminder of holiness. In the case of the building of the Tabernacle, Moses is told:

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. They shall make for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

So the purpose of the sanctuary is for the Israelites to create a sacred space in order that God’s presence might reside among the people. When it comes to the clothing, the purpose is expressed somewhat differently.

V’asitah bigdei kodesh l’Aharon ahikha, l’khavod ul’tifaret. You shall make sacred clothing for Aaron your brother, for honor and for glory. (Exodus 28:2) [Note: JPS translation is, “… for dignity and for adornment.”]

The simple meaning of this verse — what is called the p’shat — would seem to indicate that Moses himself is to create or to be responsible for the creation of the vestments, and that the purpose of the clothing is to create an aura around Aaron, to give him status. The word “kavod'” could also be translated as weight or power, and “tiferet” also implies splendor. Further instructions are for skilled people to create a breastplate, a robe, a tunic, a headdress, and a sash. There is also a thing called an ephod, which might be some kind of short over-vest. The colors and the materials of the clothes match those of the sanctuary — blue, purple and gold, linen and fine yarns. The breastplate set with twelve stones representing the tribes of Israel, and is called hoshen mishpat — a breastplate of judgement, and there is a container for the urim and tumim stones, a kind of magical instrument to guide Aaron in his decision-making.

Why would the creation of the Tabernacle be a collective responsibility, involving the whole of the nation, but the making of the priestly garments be exclusively Moses’ responsibility? Even though the very next verse indicates that “you (Moses) shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill to make Aaron’s vestments,” the previous verse puts the onus on Moses. Perhaps the answer lies in the separation of powers — political versus religious — that is about to take place. Although it will take two full years for the Israelites to complete the construction of the Tabernacle, the vessels used in its rituals, and the garments for the priests, at the end of that time there will be a major shift in power and focus. Moses, who up until that moment was the individual charged with every aspect of judgement concerning the people, will have to relinquish responsibility for being the sole intermediary between the people and God. In matters of law he will, of course, still have total authority, but in respect to ritual observance, medical issues, and the spiritual needs of the people, Aaron and his sons will become the deciders. And after the death of Moses (although it won’t come for another thirty-eight years), when Joshua becomes the leader of the people, his role will be primarily as a military leader. Joshua will never have the unique position of total moral, political, and legal authority that Moses held. So perhaps the charge to Moses concerning the fabrication of the priestly garments is a way to give him advanced warning concerning the impending shift in power and also to make him a part of that change. When the time comes, Moses will publicly give s’mikha — he will personally confer priesthood — on Aaron and on his sons.

So you might say that if the building of the mishkan creates sacred space for a communion between God and the people, the creation of the priestly garments creates an entirely different kind of sacred ‘space.’ They serve to endow Aaron and his sons, and all successive generations of priests, with weightiness and glory as they function on behalf of the people. But is that kavod, that honor or weight, for the sole sake of elevating the priestly class?

The Tabernacle is constructed so that the sacred nature of the space increases as one goes from the outer to the inner areas; the outer public courtyard, the inner area where the priests perform the sacrifices, and the Holy-of-Holies, that very innermost area reserved for the High Priest alone. Anyone else entering there is sure to die. Perhaps the clothing serves the same purpose; the exterior, public elements are splendid (tiferet/glory), and the effect of the entire regalia is one of weight in a very real sense. Heavy gold-and-stone breastplate, a heavy headpiece and a headband with the words “Holy to the Lord” — all these must have been incredibly difficult to wear, awkward to move in and to perform the rituals. But the single most awesome element of this costume might have been the bells. Around the hem of the High Priest’s robe there were sewn decorative fabric pomegranates alternating with little gold bells.

“Aaron shall wear it (the robe) while officiating so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out – that he may not die.” (Exodus 28:35)

And who is supposed to hear these bells? Certainly God doesn’t need some kind of warning bell to let Him know that Aaron is approaching. The warning is for the High Priest himself, to remind him that despite the headdress and the breastplate, the gold and precious stones, the fine linen and the colored yarns, true holiness is in the innermost space, within the heart of man himself. God dwells among the people, not because of the fine sanctuary they have constructed, and God dwells within the individual not because of the fine garments. Humans need beautiful buildings and elegant clothes, and it is all well and good that we should construct them. But lest we forget the point of all the beautiful things we construct, the bells remind us: God is at the heart of the matter. Shabbat shalom.


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.