UNIVERSAL TORAH: TETZAVEH
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: TETZAVEH Exodus 27:20-30:10
LIFE IN THE HOUSE
In last week’s parshah of TERUMAH, the Torah taught us the form and shape of the House of G-d with all its vessels. In this week’s parshah of TETZAVEH, we receive instructions about the daily activities that are to take place in that House. The central core of the parshah is taken up with detailed instructions about the making of the garments of those who are to be the ministering attendants in the House — Aaron and his sons, the priests — and about the sacrifices that were to be offered during their seven-day initiation.
It may help us to grasp the overall structure of TETZAVEH by again using the “sandwich” idea. In this case, the top and bottom of the “sandwich” would be the opening and closing sections of the parshah, which give instructions about the “daily life” in the House. TETZAVEH starts by introducing in its two opening verses (Ex. 27;20-21) the daily lighting of the Menorah candelabrum in the House using the choicest oil — this opening section would be one side of the “sandwich”. Then at the end of TETZAVEH (Ex. 29:38-45; 30:1-10) we come to the other side of the “sandwich”. This consists of the sections dealing with the daily animal sacrifices, meal, oil and wine offerings on the outside Altar, the pleasing fragrance (the incense burned in the House on the golden Incense Altar) and finally (returning to the parshah’s opening theme), the daily lighting of the Menorah.
In the middle of this “sandwich” are two considerably lengthier sections. The first gives instructions in fine detail for the making of the garments of those who are to minister in the House — Aaron and his sons, the priests. The second gives the detailed instructions for what was to be a one-time event in the Wilderness: the 7-day initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood that was to lead up to the permanent induction of the Sanctuary on 1st Nissan. (Because of the central importance of this day in the Torah, we will be returning several times in later parshahs to the description of its events – in PEKUDEY at the end of Exodus as well as in several parshahs in Leviticus and Numbers.)
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THE ATTENDANTS — AARON AND HIS SONS
A basic assumption underlies all sections of our present parshah of TETZAVEH, from beginning to end. The assumption is that the attendants conducting the daily life of the House, about whose daily activities, garments and induction-day we read in such detail, are to be none other than Aaron and his sons.
Throughout our parshah, the entire focus is upon Aaron and his sons, their activities, garments and induction. Indeed it is a fact that the actual name of Moses does not appear anywhere in our parshah from beginning to end, though he is addressed directly in its opening words, VE-ATAH TETZAVEH, “And YOU shall command…” and moreover, he was to be the central actor in the priests’ induction. [It is said that one reason why Moses’ actual name was left out of this week’s parshah is because Moses was later to pray — in next week’s parshah Ex. 32:33 — “blot me out from Your book.”. However, that prayer had already been answered before it was said, since G-d “blotted out” Moses name by not writing it anywhere in this week’s parshah!]
Addressing now the central assumption — that it is to be Aaron and his sons who will play the role of ministers in the House of the dwelling of the Holy Presence:
It must be understood that EIN MUKDAM O ME-UCHAR BATORAH: “There is no ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the Torah”. The reason for the appointment of Aaron and his sons and none other to be the priests ministering in the House does not become apparent in the Torah narrative until next week’s parshah of KI TISA, with the account of the sin of the Golden Calf. Yet even before the reason became manifest, their appointment was already conceived in the mind and will of G-d prior to that event, as we see from this week’s parshah of TETZAVEH.
The first-born of the Children of Israel were originally offered an opportunity to become the ones who would serve as the priests. Indeed at the Giving of the Torah, it was the first-born — the “lads” (Ex. 24:5) — of the Children of Israel who officiated at the sacrifices, as we read in MISHPATIM. However, with the sin of the Golden Calf (told next week in KI TISA), the first-born of the Children of Israel failed the crucial test. From that time on, the Priesthood was given to Aaron and his descendants as an hereditary gift for all time.
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In an era when public office in virtually all “advanced” countries is theoretically open to all citizens, the role of an hereditary priesthood, which is at the very center of the Torah’s system of penitence — the Sanctuary and Temple rituals — calls for some explanation.
Much of Genesis is taken up with disputes about who is to serve in the role of the “priest”. Cain struggled with Abel. Ishmael fought against Isaac. Esau fought against Jacob. Reuven was the first-born, but Levi took the initiative, Judah, fourth in line, became the leader, while it was the righteous Joseph (against whom all the brothers struggled) who received a firstborn’s double portion of two-tribes. And then Ephraim took priority over firstborn Menashe.
In Exodus: Levy’s second son, Kehat, took priority over Levy’s firstborn, Gershon. Amram was indeed Kehat’s firstborn, yet while the priesthood went to Amram’s older son, Aaron, the latter was secondary in prophecy to his younger brother, Moses. The firstborn of the Children of Israel had a brief taste of the priesthood at the time of the Giving of the Torah, 50 days after having been saved from the plague that killed all the Egyptian firstborn. However the Israelite firstborn were displaced from their “birth-right” — hereditary priesthood forever — owing to the sin of the Golden Calf.
This raises the question of the nature of the priesthood in Judaism, which is relevant to our parshah of TETZAVEH, all of which is devoted to the daily duties of the priests, their garments and their induction service.
It is true that the tribe of Levi (who did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf), and the Kohanim are in many respects separate hereditary castes. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the ideal social structure of the Israelites as envisaged in the Torah is remarkably free of the social hierarchies and inequalities that characterize even the most “democratic” societies.
In particular, Israelite society is envisaged as one that should be free of any kind of extensive hierarchical network of full-time religious functionaries who act as intermediaries between the people and G-d, and whose service before their passive congregants takes the place of the individual’s personal relationship with G-d.
This is true, notwithstanding the fact that only the Kohanim (male descendants of Aaron), and members of the tribe of Levy could actually serve in the Temple, and only the Kohanim could perform certain vital ritual functions (such as purification from leprosy). Nevertheless, the Temple itself had a relatively small number of permanent priestly officials who were responsible for the maintenance of the House. The actual sacrificial services in the House were conducted by different priests every day. Each of the 24 contingents of priests into which the Kohanim were divided served for two weeks out of the year and on festivals, spending the rest of their time teaching Torah among the people in the localities where they lived. The only outstanding exception to this rule, besides the small core of permanent Temple staff, was the High Priest, who spent all his time in Jerusalem, most of it in the Temple itself.
It is certainly correct that the Kohanim were an hereditary priestly caste, who received TERUMAH, the first gift from everyone’s crops, as well as portions of meat, wool and various other gifts. This is what they lived off. The purpose of providing the members of this caste with their material needs was to enable them to devote themselves to a higher-than-average level of devotion (as expressed in eating of Terumah and sacrificial portions in ritual purity) and to the study of the Torah. It was the Kohanim who were expected to be able to play the role of the Torah judges (see Deuteronomy 19:17) in cases of disputes. They were also to play the central role in the “diagnosis” and “purification” of leprosy and other maladies (Leviticus Ch. 13ff.)
Nevertheless, it remains true that despite their exclusive role in the Temple sacrificial services and in the purification from leprosy, the Kohanim were not religious intermediaries who in some sense REPLACED the personal connection of the individual with G-d.
The Children of Israel were envisaged as a nation of free, independent small land-owners, each farming his own and sitting under his vine and fig-tree. Only in dire circumstances would one be sold as a slave to another (as instituted in MISHPATIM). Even one who fell into slavery would eventually go free at the end of seven years or in the Jubilee year. In the seventh year, all debts were to be cancelled. Those who had sold their land would get it back in the Jubilee year. The vision was not of a country where most of the wealth is permanently concentrated in the hands of a small elite.
Just as all of the Children of Israel heard the First Commandment, so they were all commanded to serve the One G-d, each through his own prayers and acts of service. The Torah commands that all of the Children of Israel must be holy (Leviticus 19:2). Everyone must strive to go in G-d’s ways. Becoming a Nazirite is considered an excess — the Nazirite must bring a sin-offering! There are no monks in Judaism.
Outside of the Temple itself, Israelite life was intended to be free of an elite of religious functionaries. Although the Kohen and Levy are honored by being called first and second to the public Torah reading, the actual synagogue and its services are run by its members, the majority of them Israelites. The service can only take place if a quorum of 10 Israelites is present. There is no need for an official rabbi as long as somebody present — any Israelite — knows how to lead the service and read from the Torah. The “functionaries” in Israelite society are the “captains of tens”, “captains of fifties”, “captains of hundreds” and “captains of thousands”. These must be “men of valor, G-d-fearing, men of truth, hating gain” (Ex. 18:21) — but they do not have to be Kohanim. In the Torah vision of the Israelite state, membership of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the state, is not to depend on heredity or wealth but only on Torah wisdom and personal sanctity.
What then is the role of the hereditary Kohanim, whose Temple service, garments and induction are the subject of our parshah of TETZAVEH?
The key concept necessary to understand the role of the Kohen, particularly that of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), is the concept of KAPARAH — atonement. This and related concepts recur several times in our parshah. The purpose of the precious stones that were attached to the High Priest’s shoulders and bore the names of the tribes of Israel was that they should be “remembered” by G-d with favor. The wearing of the TZITZ, the head-plate inscribed “Holy to HaShem”, was to secure atonement for impurity. The closing verse of our parshah speaks of how the High Priest must annually sprinkle the golden Incense Altar with the blood of the Day of Atonement sin-offering in order to bring about KAPARAH — atonement.
The institution of the priesthood was not intended to replace individual attachment to G-d on the part of each person through his own devotions. While the Kohanim are charged with maintaining the Holy Temple as the central focus of Israelite and indeed world religious life (for “My House is the House of Prayer for all the Nations), their role in the devotional life of the individual is of significance primarily when the individual, independent “citizen” TURNS ASIDE from the path and falls into sin. He is then unable to help himself. If he is liable to bring a sacrifice, he needs a Kohen to offer it for him. If he has what he thinks is a leprous patch on his skin (a sign of a personal deficiency), he needs a Kohen to make the determination and a Kohen to purify him.
The Kohen can play his role as functionary in the Temple services and bringer of ATONEMENT only through standing aside from the rest of the people and demanding more of himself. The Kohanim were distinguished by their unique genetic inheritance as direct male descendants of Aaron, and they protected this inheritance by adhering to higher levels of personal sanctity (such as that a Kohen may not marry a divorcee, etc.).
The rich, colorful ritual garments of the High Priest embody this concept of separateness, sanctity and atonement. So too, the induction of the priests during their Seven Days of Initiation was characterized by separation, sanctity and the atonement accomplished through the offering of the ox sin offering (atoning for the sin of the Golden Calf) and the eating of peace offerings.
Atonement depends upon the priestly garments and the priests’ consumption of sacrificial portions. The original sin of Adam — of which the sin of the Golden Calf was a “repetition” — came about through eating. After Adam and Eve sinned, G-d gave them CLOTHES in order to cover over their nakedness and begin the process of atonement. The priests continue this process of atonement through wearing their unique garments while eating their portion of the sinner’s sacrifice.
The hereditary inheritance of the priesthood — Temple SERVICE — by the sons of Aaron is justified by the fact that Aaron joined himself to the Torah inheritance through his choice of a wife to mother his sons. For “Aaron took Elisheva the daughter of Aminadav, sister of Nachshon as his wife, and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar” (Ex. 6:23). Elisheva’s father, Aminadav, was the Prince of Judah, the tribe to whom Jacob entrusted with guardianship of the Torah, while her brother Nachshon was the first to jump into the Red Sea. Torah knowledge is indispensable for the proper functioning of the priesthood. Without Torah, the priest is helpless — an ignoramus priest needs a Torah scholar to teach him how to make the correct determination in cases of leprosy.
Through the merit of our Torah study, may we see the Holy Temple rebuilt quickly in our times!!!
Shabbat Shalom!!! Happy Purim!!!
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum