Torah from around the world #53

by Rabbi Tirzah Ben-David, Rabbi of

Shir Hatzafon Progressive Congregation

, Copenhagen, Denmark

Our Parasha deals with the legendary institution of the Priesthood in ancient Israelite society, and focuses on the importance of appearances. What the high priest wears – the linen vestments, the breastplate, the twelve stones representing the twelve tribes – is an intrinsic part of who he is and all this paraphernalia somehow eclipses the person behind it.   This is religion as drama, played out in a sacred space somewhere between heaven and earth, where the personalities of the actors become irrelevant, effaced.   We are lured into believing that they are invincible.

The illusion still works today.   For good or for ill we judge people by their appearance, and uniforms denote authority: doctors in their white coats, policemen, judges, and of course soldiers. Sometimes it’s not even what you wear, but where you wear it:  the rabbi wrapped in a tallit on the bimah is somehow different from the other congregants dressed in precisely the same way.   Of course everyone wears a uniform, or a disguise of sorts.  We present a face to the world, or even a variety of faces in the different roles that we play, the different ‘hats’ that we wear.   But what happens when you peel all that away?   Who are you left with – whose soul regards you?

In March 2009 my husband David Collett and I opened an exhibition at a kibbutz gallery in northern Israel, where I live.   It consisted of photographs that he took of me during 2003, the year that I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, together with the ceramics that I had made since my recovery.   The exhibition was an extraordinary experience; the photographs reflecting the place you arrive at when all the rest of your life has been stripped away, and you are left with an almost unrecognizable reflection in the mirror.  And someone says ‘Who are you?’ and you are not sure who’s asking the question – Is it you, or the person in the mirror?

Somehow David captured that in his photographs and two things happened.   Firstly, people coming to the exhibition found themselves, to a certain extent, confronting the same question; it was unnerving and potentially distressing, and I was prepared for visitors to be upset or offended. It was a risk I had to take, because I was striving for the truth, and my message was one of hope, of optimism, and not one of despair; it said, ‘Look, it can be as bad as this, it can be as hard as this, you can look like this, bald, exhausted, scarred; but you can survive it, you can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side to a whole new life.’  Which is what the ceramics are all about.   In fact the response was overwhelmingly positive; even people who found the exhibition difficult at first, came to me and talked about it, and a woman who had recently lost her husband wept in my arms.

But one thing was very clear to me right from the start: I could not have mounted that exhibition in any town where I was the Rabbi – in this case, Copenhagen.   My official position, the expectations and sensibilities of my congregation, not to mention local Jewish politics, would have made it impossible.   Which is all perfectly understandable, but nevertheless an opportunity would have been lost.   A public persona is itself a kind of uniform and, if we’re not careful, a barrier behind which we are forced to retreat from any real expression of intimacy or worse – vulnerability.

I was struck by a similar thought reading the Parasha.   We are presented with an ideal: Aaron and his sons are going to be the priests of the Israelite Nation.    It’s a sacred, mysterious, almost superhuman role –and these people must be special, extraordinary.   But they’re not.   We read this narrative with the knowledge of what is to come – Nadav and Avihu will be struck down by God for some sort of obscure cultic infringement. Aaron himself will betray God’s trust when he caves in to popular demand and makes the Golden Calf.   That’s what we remember Aaron for, not the fancy clothes.

We carry our real self deep inside us; we protect it, which often means the same as hiding it, and it can take years, or some life-changing event, for us to realize that it’s the only thing of ultimate value that we have to give the world.   Then all sorts of things become unimportant, or irrelevant, and we’re somehow free to offer that gift without the fear that it will be undervalued or misunderstood.   People told me that I was brave to put those pictures on the wall, but it didn’t feel like bravery.   It felt like gratitude and the honoring of a debt.   If I were a priest instead of just a humble rabbi, I might call it a thanks-offering.

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