This week's Torah portion is Parashat Tetzaveh, literally, "you shall command." Thirteen years ago, I stood on the bimah of our Reform Temple in Nashville (there was only one back then, there are two now; Nashville has changed a lot from when I lived there) and recited this parsha as I became a Bat Mitzvah.
Tetzaveh can be roughly divided into four sections: the commandment upon all the Israelites to bring forth olive oil for the lamps of the Tabernacle and to always kindle the lights (the ner tamid, or Eternal Light), the (very very detailed) instructions for the priestly garments, the (very very detailed) instructions for the consecration ceremony for the priests and the sacrifices to be made therein, and the commandment to build an altar for incense offerings.
In the midst of all of the other drama in Exodus--enslavement in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and next week, the incident with the Golden Calf--Tetzaveh seems very technical, and it's not entirely clear how applicable it is in a time where we no longer have priests or a central Temple.
But I've had 13 years to think about it...
It was difficult for me to glean any meaning out of Tetzaveh when I was 13. Admittedly, my first thought on reading the section on the priestly garments was that it was like God's "fashion dos and don'ts" list--it was so specific as to the exact materials and the exact colors that had to go into the clothes, plus the exact stones and the exact layout on the breastplate.
The lesson I eventually drew from all of this is that to make all of this happen as is commanded, the entire nation of Israel would have had to work together. This is first hinted at in the first section of the parsha, where Moses is told to command all of the Israelites to bring the oil, and that this "shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages" (Exodus 27:21). While the priests have their specific roles, the participation of all of the people was necessary before they could do anything. Next, God commands Moses to "instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron's vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest" (Exodus 28:3). There would have had to have been so many skillful people to make those garments, from the people who harvested and wove the flax for linen, to the people who made all the different colors of dye for the linen, to the people who mined and crafted the stones and metal for the breastplate. For the consecration ceremony, you would have needed people to raise the animals, people to harvest the wood for the altars and build those altars, and people to provide the bread, incense, and other offerings.
The idea of high priests, who by their birthright (being born as descendants of Aaron) are treated as special and chosen to have a special relationship with God, seems alien to me as a progressive. It seems to be the epitome of everything we fight against, the antithesis of a democratic society where everyone has an equal opportunity to get ahead. But I think the parsha makes perfectly clear that none of what the priests did could have been possible without the assistance of the ordinary Israelites. The "elites," if you will, didn't have the option of shutting themselves up in the Temple and keeping themselves above the community, immune to their concerns. If the priests got to wear royal clothing, it wasn't because of their royal status, but because serving the community was considered an honor.
One of the vestments they wore reinforced that point:
You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.Aaron is to wear the names of the tribes of Israel on his breastplate, over his heart, "for remembrance before the Lord at all times." Aaron and the priests would have borne, among all of their royal garments, a constant reminder over their hearts of who they served, and for whom they were responsible. My mother always reminds my brother and me that "to whom much is given, much is expected." To me, the breastplate is a literal manifestation of that admonishment.
On the breastpiece make braided chains of corded work in pure gold. Make two rings of gold on the breastpiece, and fasten the two rings at the two ends of the breastpiece, attaching the two golden cords to the two rings at the ends of the breastpiece. 25 Then fasten the two ends of the cords to the two frames, which you shall attach to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, at the front. Make two rings of gold and attach them to the two ends of the breastpiece, at its inner edge, which faces the ephod. And make two other rings of gold and fasten them on the front of the ephod, low on the two shoulder-pieces, close to its seam above the decorated band. The breastpiece shall be held in place by a cord of blue from its rings to the rings of the ephod, so that the breastpiece rests on the decorated band and does not come loose from the ephod. Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times. Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times.
(My mother also likes to remind me that "I am my brother's keeper," but I'm pretty sure that in this context, it's a reminder that he might have need for a lawyer like me one day.)
So, if there is a progressive message to be found in this parsha among the garments and jewels and animal sacrifices, it's that there will always be some sort of hierarchy in our society. But those at the top of the hierarchy do not have the right to separate themselves from the rest of the community, nor can they forget who they ultimately serve. And all of us are responsible for making this place beautiful and holy.