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Tetzaveh

By Janine Stein

Every day thousands of tourists visit the Tower of London to marvel at the Imperial state crown and the other highly decorated symbols of the British Monarchy. Exquisitely made in gold, velvet and ermine, and encrusted with thousands of diamonds, the crown signifies royal authority to lead the nation. But there’s an injustice here. The names of the people that have worn this crown are exalted, while the names of the people who created these marvelous objects are unknown. The injustice is that the craftsmen were the people with real talent, while the people who wear the crown were only born to the right parents.

There is this same distinction in Parashah Tetzaveh. Dazzling ceremonial objects are created for powerful people, while the names of the creators are erased. Majesty and humility are subtly contrasted. Nechama Liebowitz raises three challenges in this week’s parashah. She asks: Why is Moses’s name absent? Why does the text go on and on about the clothes of the High Priest and who exactly is asked to make them?

In every chapter in every book after Genesis, Moses in mentioned by name. Every single chapter mentions Moses by name because he is the hero of the saga we call the Five Books of Moses. Only in Tetzaveh is his name erased. With Moses’s name unspoken, Aaron and his sons become the main players. The second issue bothering Leibowitz is the amount of space and detail describing the ceremonial paraphernalia. Among the blue, purple and crimson yarns, is my favourite detail; the description of the frontlets of pure gold engraved with the words: ‘Holy to God’. That sign is placed on the forehead of the High Priest as he goes about his business of being a High Priest.

The effect of the proto-crown, clothes, breastplate and ceremonial objects must have been dazzling. The Spanish Medieval commentator, Ramban, sees their function as enhancing the dignity and prestige of the sacred office in the eyes of the people. In other words, they don’t transform the wearer in any real sense, they simply create a social reality, a majestic, dazzling, powerful social reality.

The last contradiction in the text as Leibowitz points out, is between 28.2 and 28.3. Look carefully. Who is being asked to make the clothes? The un-named Moses or the wise-hearted people? I think the key lies in the use of the word chochmah which is the word used to refer to the wisdom that comes from outside ourselves when we know before whom we stand. It is the wisdom of understanding our small selves in an infinite and intact world of unending creation. It is the essentially modest position with or without a gold crown to remind us of our powers. It is the wisdom of the monotheist who knows that whoever our parents are, or the talents we have, we are all equally Holy to God.

Posted on 15 February 2019

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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