By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
The primary theme of last week’s Torah parsha, Terumah, was the building of the Mishkan (Sanctuary). Each Israelite donated the gold, silver, copper, fabric and all of the other materials required to create a dwelling of splendor, where God would live ‘within its midst’.
This week’s Torah parsha, Tetzaveh, begins with God speaking to Moses: “You shall command the Children of Israel, and they shall bring to you pure oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually” (1). With this parsha, something new enters Judaism: Aaron and his male descendants are appointed as the ‘hereditary elite’, to live in the Sanctuary and focus on the holiness and spirituality of the Israelites.
In order to inspire reverence, respect and honor, God commanded that Aaron (designated High Priest) and the Priests from his family be attired in specific garments, designed and created by men of ‘wisdom’ (2). To that end, parsha Tetzevah consists of punctilious detail pertaining to the elaborate apparel to be worn while performing their holy responsibilities.
According to the Talmud (3), each of the eight garments worn by the High Priest, and four of the eight worn by the Priests, had symbolic significance. Those worn by the High Priest alone included an epod (apron) in atonement for idolatry, a diadem (jeweled crown) to sanctify the People to God, a breastplate bearing the names of the twelve tribes he represented and a robe with bells on the bottom, to alert the Divine Presence of Aaron’s approach as he entered the Sanctuary.
The four articles of clothing worn by the other Priests included a cloak for the crime of murder, pants for the crime of immorality, a hat symbolizing ‘haughtiness’ and a sash to atone for illicit thoughts of the heart.
Although parsha Tetzaveh describes the sacred attire of the Priests with minute specification, only brief references are mentioned as to the actual responsibilities of this ‘elite’ group of men.
In addition to receiving sacrifices from the Israelites and maintaining an eternal light, further research suggests that the Priests were responsible for gathering the Israelites together at the bottom of Mount Sinai, to lead them in prayers on festivals and holidays. The Priests also served as Supreme Judges, if the existing legal system was unable to attain agreement concerning a particular issue or situation. Their responsibilities also included maintaining the elegance of the Sanctuary and dedication to study of God’s laws and commandments.
In consideration of the emotional and mental state of the Israelites in ancient times, most of our sages considered the Priestly class essential. They gave the religious life of the People structure and continuity with rituals, routines, periodic festivals and celebrations. In effect, their primary job was to ensure that the Israelites remained a holy people, devoted to one God.
For modern Jews, the concept of a society based on a hierarchical class system is difficult to accept. In parsha Tetzaveh, we are challenged with a heavy spiritual demand that is neither easily interpreted nor easily embraced.
(1) EXODUS (27:20)
(2) EXODUS (28:13)
(3) Talmud (Arachin 16a)