This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20 to 30:10.
Tetzaveh gives detailed directions for creating special garments for Aaron, the high priest, and his sons. It goes on to describe the process of ordination of the priests and the consecration of an altar for sacrifice. The reading ends with details to build a gold-overlaid altar for incense.
Skilled workers are called upon to prepare four special garments for the priests: linen pants, tunics, sashes and special hats. But the sidra devotes the majority of its attention to describing the items that must be produced for the high priest. They are:
A pure gold breastplate containing the names of the tribes engraved in onyx;
A vest (ephod) woven of blue, purple and scarlet linen, upon which the breastplate was hung;
A braided robe or coat made of turquoise wool with a fringe of gold bells; and
A gold head-plate, or frontlet, with the words “holy to Adonai” engraved on it.
Also, the high priest must wear a special turban instead of a hat.
Yet for all the detail devoted to describing the production of these garments, we have virtually no idea what they looked like or how they were made. We can be certain that the people who produced these items developed plans, diagrams and drawings to aid them in their work. But it seems Moses, or the later editors, chose not to include them in the Torah as we have it.
Perhaps (as I noted last year for this same sidrah) the Torah requires our own creative input if we want to understand how these garments were made and what they looked like. Indeed, last year I made the case that the large amount of Torah real estate taken up by the details of creating the mishkan (the tabernacle) and the priestly garments was indicative of the importance of creativity in a Jewish world view.
But we can derive more from Tetzaveh than a commandment to be creative and productive.
Tetzaveh highlights one of the primary themes of the Torah: the desire to elevate place and appearance to the status of the holy. Just as Adam and Eve, upon acquiring the knowledge of good and evil, clothed themselves so that they might stand before God and not be ashamed, so the people, acquiring Torah, were instructed in Tetzaveh to produce sacred garments to clothe the priesthood when they stood in the presence of God.
But what does that mean to us now? Eden is no more, the Temple is no more and the priesthood is no more. Right?
Wrong. With the destruction of the Second Temple, the whole Jewish people were elevated to the status of priesthood. And although we often tell our history as though we were driven out of Eden and banished from the Temple, more correctly we need to understand that we grew beyond Eden and the precincts of the Temple.
Where, then, in this era, is our sacred space and what are our sacred garments? Our sacred space is the place wherever we let God in, and our sacred garments are our prayers and acts of kindness.
Stephen Berer is a writer and Jewish educator in awe of the Unknowable, with a love of Judaism that shapes much of what he thinks and does.