Tetzaveh/ Purim: The Torah of Hunting Accidents (long)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Dear Friends:

It’s almost Purim, and you know what that means . . . . . .

That’s right, it’s time to study Torah with the most holy Adar hermeneutic!

Every year, around Purim time, we look at some of the sacred principles of our
most holy
religion in a slightly different way, usually influenced by such great scholars
as the former
chief rabbi of the Freedonian Ghetto, Slib Ovitz, and another great rabbi, Sam
Buca, who
was Rabbi Ovitz’s second cousin once removed (for, apparently, getting sauced
and
making a non-halachic suggestion to a female guest at a bar mitzvah party.)

With that in mind, let’s turn to Parshat Tetzaveh, which is mostly a description
of the
special and sacred garments of the Kohen Gadol, or “High Priest,” who was
dressed in
extraordinary clothing in order to perform the rituals of the ancient Sanctuary.
The Kohen
Gadol wore a robe, called the “ephod,” which had a breastplate built into it,
and
decorations around the hems. (These days, most Jewish professionals who are men
generally don’t wear “breastplates,” unless they are going as Xena the Warrior
Princess to
the Purim party, but I read in the newspaper that the “Law Committee” of the
Conservative
Movement is looking into permitting it as a daily thing. A decision is due in
about 2043.)

Anyway, these decorations had the shape of fruit and bells:

“On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the
hem,
with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a
golden
bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it
while
officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary
before the
Lord and when he goes out — that he may not die. ” (Shmot/Exodus 28:33-35,
really!)

Now, it’s easy to understand why the Kohen Gadol would have pomegranates on his
hem-
after all, since the earliest days of the Jewish people, the question: “maybe
you want a
piece of fruit?” has been linking one generation to another as a spiritual
legacy, and thus
the robe of the High Priest is a sartorial representation of the eternal Jewish
ideal of truly
omnipresent, yet healthy, snack food. Other religions have principles of faith:
as Jews, we
accessorize.

But understanding the pomegranates just begs the question: why the bells? After
all,
wouldn’t the acute, argute, blaring, blatant, cacophonous, clanging, clangorous,
deafening, discordant, ear-piercing, ear-splitting, harsh, high, metallic,
noisy, penetrating,
piercing, piping, raucous, screeching, sharp, strident noises of the bells
disturb the
devotional head-space of the High Priest as he made his prayers?

As you can imagine, the Talmud and other traditional commentators have a lot to
say
about this. One midrash, found in a collection of ancient sermons by the famed
preacher
Abissel Kichel, links the bells to the last part of verse 33, where it says
“that he may not
die.” This commentary points out that if the High Priest didn’t have bells on,
maybe the
guards around the Temple wouldn’t hear him coming, and would mistake him for a
wild
animal, or an intruder. Rabbi Kichel offers a parable:

“The bells on the hem of the ephod- to what may these be compared? It may be
compared
to the Viceroy who goes hunting with his friend- his friend comes up behind him,
and the
Viceroy mistakes him for a beast in the bush, and grievously wounds him. But
with the
bells on the ephod, it may be compared to a Viceroy who goes hunting with his
friend, and
the friend warns the Viceroy of his approach, and there is no accidental
bloodshed.”

[Note- the “Viceroy” the one who actually runs the kingdom for the king. The
king was
often a mere figurehead, or “do’ofbal” in Aramaic, who achieved his office by
mere
accident of birth, not by virtue of administrative capability or ability to
speak a coherent
sentence in any known language. In the Hebrew of our parable, the word for
“Viceroy” is
the “S’cheney,” or “second.”]

Another medieval commentator, Zalman Rashdi, in his commentary on the priestly
service
called “The Kohanic Verses,” takes Abissel Kichel’s parable one step further:

“The Kohen Gadol – his bells are not for his honor, but for the honor of the
people, lest his
approach to the Sanctuary should cause the Temple guards to mistake him for an
intruder.
The Holy Books compare this to a Viceroy [“S’cheney”] who wounds his friend
while
hunting- but would not the Viceroy, because of the arrogance and pride that
comes with
his exalted station, be loath to admit his mistake to the people, and would he
not
therefore bring shame upon the Torah and the people Israel ? For if the Viceroy
did not
immediately admit of his error to the people, woe unto the Torah, for repentance
and
humility are lost to the world! Therefore, let the Priest always wear bells, so
that there will
be no accidental shedding of blood.”

Now, admittedly, the author of the Kohanic Verses is mixing his metaphors a bit,
because
the Talmud is apparently saying that the priest wears the bells so not to cause
any . . .
well, let’s say, weaponry mishaps, in the Temple courtyards. The parable,
however,
compares this to a “Viceroy” who is hunting with his friend, and accidentally
wounds him-
but if the Temple guards thought the High Priest was a wild bird, for example,
and they
accidentally wounded him as a result, then it’s the guards who are like the
trigger-happy
“Viceroy” in the parable, and not the Priest.

So it seems that these commentaries are saying that even if it was guards who
had a –
what did we call it? a weaponry mishap- it would still be, in some sense, the
fault of the
High Priest, who is compared to a Viceroy, and is thus always responsible for
exercising
extreme caution in situations where somebody just might get hurt. That’s why he
has to
wear bells on the hems of his robe, just to make sure nobody gets a sharp arrow
in the
you-know-what. (That’s gotta be a big ouch, when you think about it.)

The spiritual lesson we can learn is this: even in the most holy precincts of
our ancient
Sanctuary, mishaps could have occurred when men are running around with
hand-held
projectile weaponry. If- God Forbid!- such a weaponry mishap DID occur, our
Torah
understands that it’s the natural inclination of public figures such as the High
Priest, who
is compared to the “Viceroy,” to be too proud to properly repent before the
people, and
thus they have to be prevented from causing any trouble in the first place.

Fortunately, of course, we know that in all of Jewish history- and really,
throughout all of
Western Civilization- the Torah’s warnings have been heeded most stringently,
and in any
situation where important people could be the cause of unfortunate weaponry
mishaps,
the utmost precautions are always foremost on everybody’s minds. Thus, to this
day, the
bells on the garment are a symbolic way of expressing that “Viceroys and
hunting” are a
very dangerous combination, to be avoided at all costs, so that “humility and
repentance”
are not lost, and the Torah itself is exalted among the nations.

happy Purim and Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Neal

PS- if you want more, well, you know, serious, commentaries on Tetzaveh, you can
find
them, along with a summary, here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/tetzaveh_index.htm

and the text of the parsha is here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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