Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Tetzaveh 2012

Parashat Tetzaveh by Rabbi Janet Burden
27 February 2012

As part of the upcoming Fairtrade Fortnight this year (Feb 27- Mar 11), I will soon be meeting up with Fitzrovia Councillor Abdul Qadir for a photo op on the steps of the Camden Town Hall. As Abdul is serving his stint as Mayor of Camden this year, he will no doubt appear in full mayoral regalia, including the dashing red coat, the lacy collar and the mayoral chain – oh, theatricality of ritual dress….

Much of portion Tetzaveh is given over to the description of the sanctification of Aaron and his sons, how they are enrobed in special vestments so that they might fulfil their roles as priests. We rather expect this kind of dress from religious functionaries in this country. Where would the Archbishop of Canterbury be without his rather fetching robes and mitre, which are (at least in part) modelled on the High Priest’s garb? Lovely Rowan Williams isn’t half as imposing when he sits in his plain grey suit, with his sweetly unruly mop of hair. Apart from the colour of that hair, he looks a bit like a few of the fellows I went out with in the seventies – I know because I walked beside him a few years back as we both took part in the Make Poverty History campaign. But the Archbishop holds no monopoly on grandly flamboyant gear: the heads of other religious groups are often equally resplendent.

Here in Britain ‘investitures’ are not merely in the provenance of religious communities; they happen in our civil society as well in various forms, not all of which I think are particularly healthy. When ‘elevated’ to the House of Lords, one is garbed in an ermine-trimmed cloak. Judges and barristers enrobe themselves in black and crown themselves with grey wigs which are certainly the product of another era. These are the trappings of power, meant to reinforce authority. And on the whole, we buy into it (usually on the grounds that we don’t want to be like those uncouth Americans who have no real sense of history…). Look at the brouhaha that arose when the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, refused to wear the full uniform of his office.·Betty Boothroyd was almost apoplectic. But much as Betty is one of the most inspiring women I know – and I will certainly be thinking of her on International Women’s Day, coming up on March 8 – on this one, I think she has overstated the case for the preservation of this particular tradition. Sometimes, the pendulum needs to swing back, reminding us that all people are equals.

Already in the Torah, a tension – I think a necessary tension – is manifest between the singling out of particular individuals for special roles and the assertion of radical democracy. Just a few short chapters ago, in Parashat Yitro,we read the words which has for centuries framed so much of our people’s understanding of what it means to be Jewish: “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex.19:6). This task is placed upon ALL the people, not a select few. So how are we to square this assertion with the amount of attention and focus that is here placed on priestly caste?

Of course, we are not the first people to ask such a question. Others across the ages have recognised that these words form the basis of Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron’s authority, which we will read about in the book of Numbers in a few months’ time. Korach reminds Moses and Aaron that all the people are channels for holiness – by what right do these two run the show? My colleague, Rabbi Sheila Shulman, observed that Korach’s biggest problem is that he believes his own propaganda, assuming that the people are inherently holy.· But that the apparent ‘statement’ about being a holy nation is meant to be understood as an assertion of potential, not a declaration of pre-existing fact.· A better translation, Sheila asserts, is to read the imperfect tense as something more nuanced that a simple future: ‘You should be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ I’m inclined to agree.

All the fine garb in the world, all the accoutrements for service, are not enough to constitute holiness. These provide only the drama, the spectacle. Such things have their part to play for us today – if in a slightly different form than they did for our ancestors. Much of what we do here in our synagogues echoes the practices of the Temple in small ways. But personally, I am exceedingly glad that I do not have either to wear the vestments or to bear the responsibility of the priests of old. Whether you like it or not, my friends, each and every one of us is ultimately responsible for what takes place in Liberal synagogues. Will we rise to the challenge of manifesting in our words and deeds the holiness expected of a kingdom of priests? Only we can decide. Together.

If you want to help publicise Fairtrade Fortnight, feel free to join Abdul and I and our friends on the steps of Camden Town Hall, Judd Street, just across from the British Library, 7 March at 1 pm. Otherwise, just TAKE A STEP to a fairer world by supporting Fairtrade: http://step.fairtrade.org.uk