Tetzaveh 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.


Most of the latter part of the book of Exodus is concerned with the construction and operation of the <Mishkan,> or portable Sanctuary, yet within this larger topic the portions do have distinct themes. Last week the overall details of the Mishkan and its vessels were described; this week’s portion, <Tetzaveh,> is concerned with the priests (<Kohanim>) who perform the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Rules and descriptions are given for the complex ritual garments of the high priest- replete with gold and adornments of precious stones – as well as a seven day period of sacrifices and rituals to sanctify the priests for services. The parasha ends with a short description of the golden altar upon which incense was offered.



“You shall take the two <shoham> stones and engrave upon them the names of the tribes of Israel, six of the names on one stone and the other six names on the second stone, according to the order of their birth. . . You shall place both stones on the shoulder straps of the <ephod>, remembrance stones for the tribes of Israel. And Aharon shall carry their names before God on his two shoulders as a remembrance.” (Exodus 28:9-12)


The garment called the <ephod> was kind of like an apron that Aharon, the High Priest, wore as he approached the Presence of God in the innermost parts of the sanctuary. The <ephod> was woven out of threads of different colors, and had shoulder straps with beautiful engraved stones (the <shoham:> stones) on them, with the names of the tribes of Israel listed by birth order: i.e, beginning with Ruven and Shimon and ending with Binyamin. Thus, when Aharon performed the priestly service, he carried on his shoulders the names of the tribes of the Israelite nation.

( Note: the names of Yaakov’s twelve sons became the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, except for Levi, who didn’t get a portion of land because his descendants became priests, and Yosef, whose tribe was “split” into the names of his sons Ephraim and Menashe.)



The ritual garments of the High Priest seem to be rich in symbolic meaning- the problem is that the Torah doesn’t tell us what it is! Thus over the centuries many commentators have interpreted the different details of the priestly garments in all kinds of different ways, bringing mysticism, ethics, law, and imagination to bear on the problem of understanding the symbolism.

The contemporary Israeli Torah scholar Pinchas Peli, in his book of essays on the weekly Torah portion called Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, notes that the High Priest actually carries the names of the tribes of Israel in two places on his body. Not only were the names engraved on his shoulders, but apparently also on his breastplate, which had set on it not two but twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes.

Thus we read another verse which brings the idea of “remembrance:”

Aharon shall bear the names of the tribes of Israel on the Breastplate upon his heart when he enters the sanctuary, as a constant remembrance before God. ” (Exodus 28:29).

For Peli, the symbolism of the engraved names and the “remembrance” stones is a moral teaching about the perils and responsibilities of leadership. Sometimes – far too often- leaders get to their position and forget what they’re doing there, which should be serving and supporting the people to whom they are responsible. Aharon, the High Priest, who approached God on behalf of the people, must remember at all times that he is there for them, not for himself; he must carry the “names” not only on his chestpiece but in his heart, as a part of his consciousness. Peli sees in the <shoham> stones, which were on the priest’s shoulders, the idea that the leader must remember that he (or she, in our day) has the job of “carrying”- i.e., remembering and caring for- the people, rather than the all too common way of thinking that other people exist to serve and support those “on top.”

Perhaps we can extend Peli’s insight even further, not only to leadership but as a paradigm for all relationships of love and committment. According to Peli’s interpretation, the ritual garments of the High Priest served to inculcate within him the consciousness that his role was to serve and support others. This outward-looking orientation seems to me to be an essential aspect of a mature religious personality. Consider, for example, a famous passage from the Talmud that lists the acts that “guarantee” a person a “share” in the world to come (in other words, these are the acts at the top of the list of spiritual values). What’s on the list? Honoring one’s mother and father; acts of kindness; supporting the schools and synagogues; hospitality to guests; visiting the sick; helping a needy bride, and making peace between people. (Shabbat 127a)

In other words, just as the High Priest had to remember that his job was to care for others, as opposed to performing his duties for the glory and honor it brought him, a basic religious orientation is to always remember- bring into our consciousness- other people’s needs and circumstances. We have to “carry on our hearts” the needs of those around us if we want be spiritually effective; we have to remember that it’s a privilege to “carry on our shoulders” those who may benefit from the unique gifts we may be able to offer. It’s so easy in this “Look Out for Number One” world to slip into the mentality that others are here for our benefit rather than seeing a life of giving and service as a great gift we can offer to the world.

Authentic Jewish spirituality is never only about the individual’s inner encounter with the Holy; it must include an element of outer-directed love and service in the context of spiritual community. The most “spiritual” person in the ancient community of Israel (i.e., the High Priest) didn’t approach God only as an individual but brought with him the consciousness of his place within the entire nation. This is not to discount personal spiritual intentionality and devotion, but rather to propose it can’t be all there is in a Jewish religious life. If we’re not carrying with us the “names of the tribes of Israel” on our hearts, we’re not fulfilling our potential as part of a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.”

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