There are as many ways to approach the Torah as there are people. For example, I am the kind of person who likes to sit off to the side when I go to our local folk music club. But from the side I can better see the informal, more personal life behind the performance than if I sit directly in front of the performers. And, while I still love the story telling parts of the Torah, over the years, I have come to appreciate the more difficult parshas, such as Tetzaveh. When approached head on, they seem so stiff and formal, but seen from the side, they reveal more hidden treasures. The details of the high priest’s attire in this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, can seem technical and tedious. Or they can open a window to our past.
Parashat Tetzaveh falls directly in the midst of drama. On one side is the Exodus from Egypt, including the moment in Parashat Bo when Moses admits that they are choosing to blindly enter into the unknown. Moses says, “We know not with what we must serve the Lord, until we come there.” Ex. 10:26. In the two parshiot immediately before Tetzaveh, Moses has begun to learn what it will be to serve this Lord. Last week, that service focused the details of how to build the place in which this powerful but unknown and mysterious God will be worshiped.
On the other side of Tetzaveh, next week, B’nai Israel will fall from this high point into the worship of the Golden Calf. Their leader there will be Aaron, and, ironically, Tetzaveh is all about the formalities of getting Aaron outfitted to be the High Priest who is to lead the people in the worship of God - not of an idol.
So woven throughout this parasha, and just off to the side, is danger, courage, and betrayal. And the challenge I will only raise here, but not discuss, is to put ourselves into the scene, present as an observer just off to the side, watching the personal, informal life behind the details of dressing the priests. Since this is our history, what are the advantages in worshiping God following these rules instead of those we are familiar with. Don’t reject this world and these rules as primitive. This sort of worship existed millennia longer than ours. Don’t assume we have advanced beyond it. This is best taken as a group project, so I entrust it to you to play with. I will take up some of Tetzaveh’s other themes.
Tetzaveh is not ancient history. It is present for us and meaningful in our own lives today and infuses the worship we are familiar with. The parasha begins, v’atah tetzaveh—and you [Moses] (yes, you) shall command . . . This unusually emphatic Hebrew structure is an order for Moses to command the Israelites to bring oil for lighting lamps to burn tamid—eternally. Eternity,tamid, appears in this parasha again in 28:29 when Aaron is told that he will carry the names of the patriarchs over his heart whenever he enters the sanctuary so that he will tamid [always] remember he is before the Lord. In 28:38, Aaron is to wear tamid [always] before the Lord his headdress with its inscription: Holy to the Lord (28:32) so he can be an emissary of the people.
Each of these things is, indeed, tamid in a physical sense. Our sanctuaries have nerot tamid - eternal lights. Our well-dressed sifrei Torah wear the priest’s breastplate and headdress. In this way we have transcended the destruction of the tabernacle worship system and continued its elements as central to our worship.
The concerns of this parasha also reach deep into the past. They were present as part of creation. In Genesis God personally and tenderly dressed Adam and Eve as they were being expelled from Eden into the world with all its unknowns and dangers.
And here, in Tetzaveh, God is personally - even obsessively - engaged in dressing the high priest. In 28:2, the stated purpose of these clothes is for dignity and adornment. But it is more than just fancy clothes. These clothes have mystical properties that connect Aaron directly with God and that allow him to atone for the people’s sins and guide them and represent them before God.
In the beginning, literally, God’s first act of creation was making light. And in this pasha, God commands us to have light connected with our worship forever.
We live as a link chain in that chain of forever - tamid. We maintain the ner tamid in the shul, and light shabbat candles, hanukah candles, havdalah candles, yizkor candles, and yom tov candles in the home. The word light is sprinkled throughout the tanach and in our rabbinical exegesis and songs. Torah is a light to our eyes and for our feet. And we carry that light into the world and into the future and from our past. With luck and hard work, we make a place for that light in our very hearts and in our minds and through our hands to spread that light to the world and make it Holy to the Lord.