Archive for Tetzaveh

Tetzaveh: Discernment and Reason

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

Your bleary-eyed commentator has just returned from the
Rabbinical Assembly convention in Washington, D.C., which, except for
an ice-storm mishap or two, was a good few days of learning and
hearing interesting things from interesting people, including some
high governmental officials. The most prominent person who addressed
the Assembly was the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts,
who spoke only briefly, but who did in the course of his comments
compare the work of a judge to the ancient leadership model found in
this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh. (Somebody on his staff must have
a good working knowledge of Conservative Judaism, because he mentioned
Louis Finkelstein and Solomon Schechter, too.)

Among other comparisons, Justice Roberts noted that Aharon, the
ancient High Priest, had recourse to a way of divining God’s will in
matters of where judgment was difficult:

“You shall place the Urim and the Tummim into the choshen of judgment
so that they will be over Aharon’s heart when he comes before the
Lord, and Aharon will carry the judgment of the Israelites over his
heart before the Lord at all times.” (Shmot/ Exodus 28:30)

Scholars disagree about what exactly the “urim and tummim” were, or
what they looked like, or how they were placed in the breastplate of
the High Priest, or how they were used, but the general idea is that
they were small objects which when used in a certain way revealed
Divine truth- they were a kind of oracle for tough cases. Justice
Roberts noted that today, judges do not have and cannot claim Divine
truth and therefore must be exceedingly careful in their reasoning and
research. Presumably, there is no other way to render judgment in a
secular and pluralist society.

I appreciate his point, and would agree that even in religious
matters, the human judge must not claim perfect understanding of the
Divine will, but must instead make a well-reasoned case based on
precedent, context, and evaluation of our best current knowledge. (I
think I just gave you a shorthand definition of Conservative Judaism.)
Yet as a matter of religious perspective, I would not agree that there
is an ontological distinction between human reason and “revelation” of
spiritual truth. We certainly don’t have anything like the “urim and
tummim” anymore, yet reason itself is often understood as the meaning
of “tzelem Elohim,” or being created in the Divine Image.

When human beings sit down to humbly deliberate, and use the gift of
rationality to inquire into important questions, and bring various
disciplines (including religious values and traditional teachings)
into the process of discernment, then I would argue that we are, in
fact, engaged in a process of ongoing revelation. We may not have the
utter certainty that Aharon did when he consulted the “urim and
tummim,” but the gift of reason is no less a gift from God, and no
less a part of a mature religious perspective.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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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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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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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