Shabbat Shalom: Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel — “Make a forehead-plate of pure gold, and engrave on it…’Holy to God’. Attach a twist of sky-blue wool to it” (Exodus 28:36-37)
This week’s portion of Tetzaveh, wherein Moses’ name is not mentioned even once, exclusively belongs to Aaron, whose name appears more than 30 times. It is a portion devoted to the holy vestments and the consecration of Aaron’s priestly descendents. This is the week of the Kohen-Priest but in actuality it is the week of the entire nation of Israel, a nation created to be wholly holy, an entire nation of priests, dedicated to God.
Such is the Divine charge to the Israelite nation immediately prior to the revelation at Sinai “and you shall be unto me a kingdom of Priest-Kohanim and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6); mark every word of the commentary of S’forno to this verse: “You shall be a kingdom of Priest-Kohanim to understand and to teach to the entire human race the necessity of the calling out in the name of the Lord, so that they might serve Him together… for from Zion shall come forth Torah(to the world)” (S’forno Adloc.).
The day of the observant Jew begins by expressing the innate “Kohen-dom” of every single member of our nation. Before the Jew does anything else he fills a large vessel with water, his left hand pours the water over the right, and the right hand pours the water over the left, for three cycles. Just as during the priestly ablutions in the Temple so is this act of ritual washing to be performed with Koach Gavra – from ones own vitality. The blessing we make as we wash, “Netilat Yadaim” refers to the lifting or consecrating of the hands. “They shall make me a Temple so that I may dwell in their Midst” – the world must become the Temple and our every action – as priests- must be consecrated to God.
Our “Kohen-Dom” continues with the two Blessings we make in which we thank God for giving us His Torah. Our commentaries explain that the first blessing refers to the Written Law and the second the Oral Law. After the blessings we must read two selections, one from the Written Torah and one from the Talmud. It is fascinating that out of all the verses of the Written Torah our Sages choose the Priestly Benediction – “May God bless you and keep you…” as the blessings which we recite. We begin the day with Priestly actions and Priestly words.
On Friday evening we greet the Sabbath by kindling the candelabrum-Menorah in every Jewish home, by reciting the blessing of sanctification over wine reminiscent of the wine livations at the alter, and bless our children once again with the Priestly blessing. Our special Sabbath Hallah-bread is our form of our Sanctuaries show-bread, and the salt in which we lightly dip the Hallah represents the salt at every sacrifice; this symbolizes the teaching just as salt never spoils, so will our covenant with God last eternally.
On Passover we dress in special white garb (kittel) at the seder, each family brought its own pascal lamb sacrifice in Jerusalem, and we even wash our hands before eating the vegetables dipped in saltwater; all of this is reminiscent of what the Priest did in the Holy Temple. On Yom Kippur we likewise wear the white robes and dramatically repeat each word of the Priestly words of confession and expiation in a dramatic re-experiencing of the words and actions of the High Priest in the Holy Temple.
And if the Priests conducted the sacrificial services in the Temple, every Jew is capable of conducting the services in our Temple. Individuals without any priestly lineage or Levitic Lineage can recite the Amidah for the congregation, cantillate the weekly Biblical portion and call people up to the Torah. Indeed, as our Biblical reading of Tetzaveh describes the High Priest’s eight special garments, it emphasizes “the tzitz” – the pure gold forehead-plate, on which is written “Holy to God”. A twist of royal, sky-blue wool (tkhelet) was attached to this forehead-plate, evidently expressing our descent from the royalty of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
Today, the tzitzit – ritual fringes with a string of royal sky-blue wool – may be worn by every Jew, enabling the one who wears it to feel and act with the Majesty of the High Priest of old. There is no more democratic institution in our present day synagogue, where in everyone may be draped in a prayer shawl with ritual fringes, everyone together. Just ask an unJewish visitor to distinguish between the laymen and the Clergy and he will not be able to do so. We are all Kohanim-Priests and must continue to teach first Israel and then the world.