Tetzaveh: Accountability and Community

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

The Torah portion Tetzaveh shifts from the Mishkan (portable
Sanctuary) to the people who serve in it. Moshe is commanded
to make his brother Aharon, and Aharon’s sons, into priests, who
will perform the ritual duties of the Mishkan. The priests,
especially the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, will be dressed in
fine and beautiful garments especially crafted for this purpose;
the fine details of these garments form a major theme of the
reading this week.

As with the details of the Mishkan itself, there are several ways to
learn from what might otherwise seem like endless fine points
of design and craftsmanship. Some commentators see each
piece of the Mishkan, or the priestly garments, as filled with
symbolic significance; others look for historical connections,
either with the Israelite’s own history or in comparison with other
ancient religions.

A third way to look at this part of the Torah is to find lessons not
only in the symbolism but in the process of calling for and
collecting donations, crafting valuable things, selecting certain
people for great responsibilities, and so on. In other words, how
we built the Mishkan has social and ethical implications for
Jewish thinking, just as the religious aspects of the Mishkan can
inform our contemporary spiritual practice.

Thus, returning to the subject of the priestly garments, we read
that they included rare fabrics and gold decorations:

“And you shall speak to all the wise hearted, whom I have filled
with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make Aharon’s
garments to sanctify him . . . . They shall take the gold, the blue,
purple, and crimson wool, and the linen, and they shall make the
ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool. . . ” (Exodus/
Shmot 28:3-6, abbreviated)

R. Moshe Alshich (Israel, 1500’s), finds a lesson in the fact that
the craftsmen are addressed in the plural; “they shall take the
gold” necessarily implies that it’s more than one person
receiving the donated gold for the priestly garments. Alshich
sees this as teaching public accountability for donated goods:

“The goldsmiths did not need supervisors to ensure that they did
not appropriate public funds for themselves. Since there were
several of them and they were trustworthy, they may accept the
gifts themselves, directly from the public, without having to
render an accounting.”

This fits in with other Jewish teachings about accountability to
the public trust. For example, when the Temple stood, the robes
of the priests were not to have hems in them, lest the priests
should be suspect of smuggling money out of the Temple
treasury. Note, however, the presumption at work here: that
people are naturally tempted to make private use of money or
other public goods, and safeguards need to be put into place.
This doesn’t mean that people are evil, but rather that human
nature should be planned for in advance.

The craftsmen who built the Mishkan and sewed the priestly
garments had a dual responsibility: not only to the people who
entrusted them with gold, but also to God, Whose Presence was
felt in the completed sanctuary. It’s quite amazing to think that
human beings could be tempted to embezzle from God, as it
were, but human nature is powerful!

On the other hand, by working as a team, the craftsmen not only
watched over each other, but they could call each other to a
greater sense of purpose and ethics. A single person, working
alone, might be tempted to misappropriate property or cut
corners, thinking that nobody sees what’s going on. Conversely,
a community (or a board, or a committee, or a staff team)
building something together can raise each other up to the
highest levels of goodness and generosity and clarity of
purpose. Both are part of human nature; serving in partnership
with others makes the difference.

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