Yom Shabbat, 17 Tammuz 5779
Saturday, 20 July 2019
Parashat Tetzaveh 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh
Rabbi Leah Jordan
7th February 2014

I’ll be honest. For a little while, I struggled with what I wanted to meaningful say about this week’s Torah portion. Parshat Tetzaveh essentially adds to last week’s elaborate instructions for how to build the Tabernacle and what will be inside it, by going on to give us detailed information about what the priests will wear. Our only characters are Aaron, the high priest, and his also-priestly sons: Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar. Mostly we’re told what they’re wearing, not what they’re thinking or doing. There is much discussion, as you may imagine, of robes, headdresses, breastplates, and animal sacrifice.

So I asked two friends for their thoughts on the parsha. And I asked my husband. Finally, I asked my father. The amazing thing that came out of this search for meaning in this week’s portion was a re-confirmation that Jews have a whole lot of wonderful thoughts and opinions when you ask them. One suggested I take a cue from the subject matter – the priestly caste – and talk about how we relate to hierarchies in our own lives, whether Jewish or secular. Another advised that I start with a joke about how finding meaning in some of our parshiyot is, admittedly, a struggle at first glance. Another suggested I speak about what it means to make materials for important uses, like the priesthood, and explore modern day issues around fair trade.·

·This stew of Jewish responses reminded me of what ultimately leaps out to me about all this discussion around the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, God’s unseen presence, the priestly vestments and rituals and diadems: of course we’re really talking about grades of holiness—and about how we make meaning out of special spaces, special objects, and, even, in the case of our parsha, special (priestly) people. I’m reminded of a mishnah that my chevruta (study partner) brought last week, which lists levels of holiness in a way purposefully very similar to our Torah portion:

“If the townspeople,” it teaches, “sell the town square, they may buy with the proceeds a synagogue; if they sell a synagogue, they may buy with the proceeds an ark; if they sell an ark, they may buy wrappings for scrolls; if they sell wrappings for scrolls, they may by scrolls; if they sell scrolls, they may buy a Sefer Torah. But if they sell a Sefer Torah, they may not buy with the proceeds scrolls; if they sell scrolls, they may not buy wrappings; if they sell wrappings, they may not buy an ark; if they sell an ark, they may not buy a synagogue; if they sell a synagogue, they may not buy a town square....” (mMegillah 3:1)·
There is a sense in this mishnah, as in our parsha, of levels of holiness, ascending and descending. From the ritual vestments only the chief priest is allowed to wear – a special robe and headgear – to the clothes all the priests can wear to, finally, the clothes assumedly everyone can wear. What can we make of all this?

Well, it’s very Jewish way of thinking. Or I should say, rather, that our commitment to making meaning out of our lives, out of the yearly calendar and festivals, out of our texts and our sacred spaces stems from what both the Torah and later the Mishnah elucidate: a need and desire to make meaning and sacredness out of regular lives, regular spaces. If our ultimate festival, Shabbat, is an attempt to make sacred meaningful space in time, as Heschel famously wrote, then our ultimate space, the Tabernacle (of which the Temple and later our synagogues are echoes), is a reminder to make sacred meaningful space in the regular physical space and objects in our lives. I asked four Jews for their opinions on this week’s parsha and – taking their cue from the parsha itself, which is about making sacred meaning out of the regular clothes we wear – they immediately came up with at least four different meanings out of the regular words of our parsha. That’s what Tetzaveh is about.