Tetzaveh 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20- 30:10)


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. 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 parsha ends with a short description of the golden altar upon which incense was offered.


“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. ” (Exodus 28:1)


After completing the instructions for building the Mishkan and its contents, God gives Moshe instructions for the priests and their special clothing. Moshe is told that Aharon, his brother, and Aharon’s sons, will serve as the priests of the new Sanctuary.


Many commentators see in this verse a special emphasis on the fact that Moshe had to inaugurate and set up the priesthood, but he himself could not be part of it. This is especially interesting in light of the next chapter, 29, in which Moshe gets the instructions for the priestly dedication ceremonies. When Aharon will be consecrated as a priest, Moshe himself will make the sacrifices and perform the rituals- but after that, the priesthood is “transferred” away from him, to Aharon and his descendants.

Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that a “separation of powers” is a good thing for any community (ignore for a moment the obvious point that Moshe and Aharon were brothers.) On the most mundane level, the kind of work that a political and judicial leader must do is different from the kind of spiritual tasks the priests would do- maybe our explanation is as simple as making sure that nobody takes on too much. Conversely, maybe the Torah is pointing out that Moshe was not only the judicial and legal leader of the nation, but also its voice of moral exhortation; perhaps he would be too intimidating a figure to minister to the daily needs of the people, who brought sacrifices for atonement, sin-offerings, and healing.

Picking up on this latter idea, the famous 18th century preacher, the Maggid of Dubno, said that a kohen, a priest, had to educate the people in spiritual matters and offer them an example that they could follow. Moshe, the great prophet, was such a lofty and imposing figure that the people would never be able to emulate him. Instead, they needed religious figures who shared their lives, who were enough like themselves that they offered a viable example of the spiritual life. A commentary on this commentary reinforced this idea by pointing out that the verse says that a priest must come “from among the Israelites:”

    God commanded that a priest be taken from among the nation, a priest who was part of the nation’s body and soul. Such a person could lead them on the path of righteousness. (Yehuda Nachshoni, Hagaot B’Parshiyot HaTorah, from which the quote from the Maggid of Dubno was taken.)

My assumption is that the Maggid of Dubno wasn’t really talking about the historical priesthood at all, but rather making a subtle point about the religious and moral leadership of his own day. Some Hasidic rabbis were critical of the great Torah scholars who were seen as living in the “ivory towers” of the study halls rather than out among the community, helping people connect with Judaism on a day to day basis. This tension between the high standards expected of religious leadership extends into our own day; congregations often seem to want a rabbi to be a scholar and a moral exemplar, but also have a “connectability” factor of warmth and empathy.

It’s not only religious leaders who need to be “from among the people.” There is a story about a recent American President who was ridiculed when he marveled at an automatic price scanning machine, oblivious to the fact that these had been in supermarkets for years. The point his critics made was that the man responsible for setting the economic policy of the nation had not actually done his own shopping in a very long time- so how could he understand the needs of the average family? On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t want the Prime Minister’s time taken up with daily grocery runs, so maybe we can’t have it both ways.

Ultimately, perhaps these teachings are directed not so much at the leaders, but at those who have expectations of leaders. I think we should ask ourselves if one person can be both a Moshe, the great prophet, the powerful transmitter of Torah, and an Aharon, the “people person,” who provides an example the common person can actually aspire to. Or is the text suggesting that a person can’t fulfill both of these roles at any one particular time, but indeed, they are both important modes of leadership? Moshe and Aharon were great, paradigmatic figures, but do we have reasonable expectations of our rabbis, politicians, and community leaders?

Pondering why Moshe was not allowed to be a priest forces us to consider our relationship to the leaders of our day; an ancient story of social roles, in the light of our tradition of commentary, leads us to ask the most contemporary of questions.

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