by Rabbi Rich Kirschen,
Director of Israel Programs, Union for Reform Judaism
So what do we have here in this week’s Torah Portion of Tetzaveh? Unfortunately we have a very long and not very interesting description of the High Priest and the clothes he is about to wear before ordination. We have instructions for building the Altar and finally we have in-depth details regarding the gore of the sacrifices that seem something like out of a Quentin Terentino film (
For example Exodus 30:1: “A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be; and two cubits shall be the height thereof; the horns thereof shall be of one piece with it.”
But wait… before we panic and throw up our hands with the cry that this is boring and irrelevant, we need to remember that Torah study has never been easy and maybe it shouldn’t be easy. As Jews who love Torah, we know that if we just look at the
(the simple and plain meaning of this Text) we are toast, we are like a bad football team tackled on our own 2nd yard line (I am writing this on Erev Super Bowl and thought I would try to throw in some type of sports metaphor; although I have not followed pro football since Roman Gabriel played for the LA Rams.). Our job is to be “Jews for Exegesis” (sorry) and when we encounter a text like this, our first response needs to be that we will dive down deeper into the layers of the text and into the deeper meaning . This is a Torah portion that begs us to go beyond the vivid descriptions of the clothes and the costume of the Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest), and asks us to see the man under these priestly garments. And if there is one thing we should know about the High Priest in this Torah portion, is that he is Aaron, the brother of Moses. This is not and should not be a minor detail. We all know the importance of family relationships and how they are determining influences in our own lives and the lives of the leaders of our people. And the Torah knows this too; which is why the Torah narrative begins with the story of the Jewish people starting out as a family – yet sadly this narrative tells the story of a very… dysfunctional family.
Let us review:
• Cain Kills Abel
• Abraham banishes Ishmael and Hagar into the desert for almost certain death
• Abraham nearly kills Isaac to show his devotion to God – remember the Akkeda (the Binding of Isaac)
• Rebecca lies to Isaac
• Jacob tricks Isaac
• Jacob steals Esau’s Birthright
• Esau tries to kill Jacob
• Laban fools Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter Leah
• Dinah is raped by Shechem and is forced to marry the man who rapes her
• Shimon and Levi ask Shechem and his people to circumcise themselves as a gesture of being part of Jacob’s family
• Shimon and Levi then kill every man in Shechem’s town while they are recovering from their circumcision
• Joseph’s brothers want to kill him
• Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery
• Joseph’s brother lie to Jacob about Joseph being killed
• Joseph slowly tortures his brothers and enslaves Benjamin before revealing his real true identity to his brothers in Egypt
Let’s face it — it takes a whole book in the TANACH (Hebrew Bible) to figure out how to become a semi functional family. Only when we get to Joseph’s sons at the end of the book of Bereisheet (Genesis) do we get some kind of familial normalcy in terms of how brothers need to treat each other, like with Ephraim and Menashe, who, according to tradition, treated each other with respect and fairness. This is why we give the blessing on Erev Shabbat (Friday nights) to boys:“יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה – You should be like Ephraim and Menashe” as opposed to saying “You should be like Cain and Abel” or “You should be like Jacob and Esau”, which would be awkward.
Only after we figure out how to be a family at the end of Bereisheet (Genesis) are we ready to learn how to become a nation in the book of Exodus. However even as we are becoming a nation in Exodus, the Torah portion does not forget some of the key lessons from Bereisheet (Genesis). When looking back at all of the horrible ways siblings treated each other in Bereisheet – this Torah portion is incredibly beautiful within the context of the relationship between Aaron and Moses. Take note from the wider story of how Moses, who was the more exalted of the two brothers, lovingly helps dress Aaron in the clothes of the Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest). In contrast to Jacob, who dressed in his brothers clothes in order to deceive his father Isaac and steal his brother Esau’s Birthright, here we have two brothers who deeply care for each other and who help one another. (I learned this nice insight from Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman one Shabbat morning at Kol HaNeshama; see, Levi, I am paying attention). This is a wonderful but difficult arc that is brought to a close with two brothers creating a Tikkun (correction) for what their forefathers did to one another and an important Kavanah underneath the fanciful descriptions of the clothing of the Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest).
However, there is more than just a beautiful tikkun here, but in fact there is a thoughtful balance of power as reflected in the roles of Moses and Aaron. Moses is the leader of the people, the one who received the Torah at Sinai, but he does not need to be the Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest), rather that role is given to Aaron. In this Torah portion there is a separation of religion and state, there are checks and balances in the Torah. There is an appreciation for sharing power and there is an acknowledgement of the importance of moving from a functional and healthy family to a functional and healthy nation.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of this Torah Portion is to zoom out and ask the question about the actual need for Kohanim and Levites in the first place. Why would the people of Israel need to single out the Tribe of Levi to be Koahnim (High priests) and Levites (the helpers of the Kohanim) to attend to the sacrifices and eventually watch over the Temple in Jerusalem? Apparently this goes back to our stories from Bereisheet (Genesis) about siblings and brothers and about Shimon and Levi. Shimon and Levi (the namesake of the two tribes) killed every man in a town in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34:25). These actions by Shimon and Levi showed an affinity for violence if not rage. Even if you look at the story of Moses when he comes down from Mount Sinai and sees the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:28), he kills 3000 people (we usually do not hear about this story, but it’s there). The Torah makes clear that the tribes of Shimon and Levi had some major anger management issues. And in a brilliant safeguard for the people of Israel there is a decision made regarding Shimon and Levi. If you ever look at the maps of the Tribes of Israel, you will see that although Shimon gets a portion of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) it is a portion of land entirely surrounded by the Tribe of Judah. As if to say, we trust your tribe, but only so much; and just to make sure you behave, you will be surrounded by the tribe of Judah. For the tribe of Levi (the tribe of Moses and Aaron) because of their history – they are not given any portion of the land of Israel but are in a way made God’s “special helpers.” Just like the kid who misbehaves in class, there is an attempt to take their anger and channel it into more healthy and productive venues. And remember what ultimately the Kohanim do; they cut up animals all day (thank you my chevrutah at Grand Café on Derech Bet Lechem). Call it reaction formation or sublimation, but there is something fascinating about taking the most violent brother/tribe and making them the priests.
And so Aaron, Moses’ brother the Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest), under all of his priestly vestments, is thinking to himself, “Here I am Aaron … coming from this crazy family that somehow made things better, trying to figure out how to manage power that is effective, efficient, smart and fair. How do I to acknowledge all of this burning anger and all of this rage that is a part of my family? And how do I direct all of this into something that is worthwhile and meaningful.” And at that moment Aaron looked up and saw his brother Moses, and knew he would be okay.