Friday, March 2, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha

Tezaveh - To Carry the Names before God

The Kohanim hold a lofty position among the Jewish People.  They are the ones who serve before God in the Beit HaMikdash, who protect the Temple, and who administer and execute all of its functions.  As such, they are a permanent part of the Temple.  When one enters the Temple, what he or she expects to see is the glorious structure itself, all of its vessels, and the Kohanim in their priestly service.  The Kohanim, no less than the altar, the menorah, and the showbread table, are themselves klei kodesh, the holy vessels, the vessels of the Temple.

It is not surprising, then, that our parasha demands that equal care be given to the garments of the Kohanim - the priestly vestments - as is given to the making of the Sanctuary itself.  They are the insignia of office, marking their special role, distinguishing them from the laity.  They are bigdei kodesh, holy garments, but also garments that confer holiness, that mark their wearers as holy.   And in the case of the Kohen Gadol, these clothes were not just different, but also expensive and exquisite.  These garments were to be "for honor and glory (28:2)."   The Kohen Gadol wearing these garments would be a symbol to the people of the glory of God.  Wearing these, he would command the people's respect, a respect for the office, and a respect for Temple, and a respect for God.

Now, this is all pretty heady stuff.   A person in such a role can begin to think of himself as God's representative on Earth, can begin to see himself in a position to dictate to the people the will of God.  Ironically, then, or perhaps not so ironically, the verses make it clear that these same garments which are to confer honor and glory, will also serve a very particular role in defining the Kohen Gadol's relationship to the people.   The two jewels of the ephod must be inscribed, we are told, with the names of the twelve tribes.  These stones will be "memorial stones for the Children of Israel."  And in wearing them, in wearing this vestment, the Kohen Gadol, "will bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the Lord." (28:12).   The same is true regarding the choshen, the breastplate which was suspended from these two stone.    It too had precious stones, twelve in fact, which were engraved with the names of the twelve tribes.  And here too we read that these names will " be upon Aaron's heart, when he goes in before the Lord." (28:30).  The very garments which confer honor and glory must be brought to the service of remembering the Jewish People before God.

But wait.  Who is to remember the people?  The Kohen Gadol or God?   The answer is both.  The Kohen Gadol must remember that he is there -  in his role, in the inner sanctum of the Temple - as a representative of the people.  If he keeps this in mind, if he remains humble, if he understands that he is entering the Temple not for himself, not for his honor and glory, but for the sake of the people, then, and only then, will he be fulfilling his role and his function.  He must, in short, always keep the names of the people he is serving "upon his heart."  If he does this, if he truly represents the people, then he will be able to bring their names before God.   If the Kohen Gadol represents us, then it will not only be the names that will be brought before God, but the entire people, embodied in the person of the Kohen Gadol. And thus will the people themselves be remembered by God.

Perhaps this is why there were two sets on names.   The names on the breastplate could be read by others.   They projected to all that his identity was that of a representative of the people.  They let everyone know how close the people were to his heart.   But having them close to your heart means taking responsibility for them, it means bearing them on your shoulders.   The names on the ephod stones signified that the Kohen Gadol would "carry their names... on his shoulders" (28:12), that he understood his position was not about having power over others, but about being responsible for others.  If the care translated into responsibility, then these names on the ephod stones, which could only be seen from above, would be seen by God.  These stones would become a "memorial before the Lord."

The Kohen Gadol, then, had a dual function.  To the people, he was part of the Temple, he was a holy vessel.  To the people he was a representative of God.  But to God, he was a representative of the people.     This double role is nicely distilled by a halakhic framing in the Talmud.  Is the kohen - asks the Gemara in Yoma 19a - our agent or God's?  The answer, as we have seen, is both.  But it is these two roles that must be kept in proper balance.   When Moshe described his role as leader to his father-in-law, he told him of his many functions.  First on that list was to represent the people: "The people come to me to inquire of God."   Last on that list was to represent God to the people: "And I make known to them the statutes of God and God's laws." (Shemot 18:15).    And Yitro reflected this back to Moshe.  First: "You be for the people before God, and you shall bring their matters to God." (18:19).  And only afterwards: "You shall admonish them regarding decrees and the laws. And you shall inform them the path upon which they shall walk and the actions which they must do." (18:20).

The role of representing God to the people, of teaching God's Torah to the people, of guiding them along the path, comes only after one has taken them close to his heart, and has accepted their responsibility upon his shoulders.   It can only come if one is constantly bringing their concerns to God.   It can only come if one understands their concerns, their struggles and their hopes, their religious strivings and their doubts, their accomplishments and their failures.  It can only come if one is prepared to carry all this to God, to be for the people before God.  Then, and only then, can one don the garments, can one make a claim to holiness, can represent God to the people.

The paradigm of a religious leader who was a true "agent of the people", who defined his leadership by his bringing the people and their concerns before God, was the great Chassidic rebbe, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev(1740-1809).  Known as the "defender of Israel before God," he was prepared to argue with God, to even challenge God, in defense of his people, in defense of Klal Yisrael.   This was particularly true on Yom Kippur, the day that we stand before God for forgiveness.  On this day, the shaliach tzibbur takes on the role of the Kohen Gadol - entering into the Holy of Holies so that he can bring atonement for the people.  And Reb Levi Yitzchak understood that this demands that one carry the names of the people in his heart and on his shoulder.   On one Yom Kippur, acting as the shaliach tzibbur, he refused to pray, saying to God, "If You refuse to answer our prayers, I shall refuse to go on saying them."   In perhaps the most legendary and shocking of the stories we hear that-

One Kol Nidrei night, Reb Levi Yitzchak found a person who seemed not at all troubled or anxious about this day of awe, but rather spent his entire prayers looking at a piece of paper.
"What are you looking at?" he asked this man.
"I made a list," said the man.  "In one column I listed all of my sins, everything that I had done wrong this last year. They were so numerous and so weighty that I thought for sure I would never be forgiven.  But then I made another list.  On this list I listed everything that God had done wrong this last year.  The floods that had wiped out half our village.  The little girl that died from dysentery.  The oppression that we suffer from daily.   And in the end the two lists were of equal size.  So now I turn to God and say - God, I'll make you a deal.  If you forgive my sins, I will forgive yours."
Hearing this, Reb Levi Yitzchak was overwhelmed.  "How did you let God off so easily?" he asked.  "If only you would have pushed your case more, you could have brought the Messiah!"

This is what it means to bring the names of the people before God.   This is what it means to be able to wear the priestly garments.

I would like to end by sharing a special kaddish that Reb Levi Yitzchak wrote and sang prior to leading the community in mussaf on Yom Kippur one year.   This kaddish is said after the shaliach tzibbur prays to God asking for help in this holy task, coming to represent the people to God.   Here is the kaddish that he said after this prayer:

Peace be upon You, Master of the Universe
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?

For everywhere I look it says, "Say to the Children of Israel."
And every other verse says, "Speak to the Children of Israel."
And over and over, "Command the Children of Israel."
Father, sweet Father in heaven,
How many nations are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
That their Czar is the only ruler.
The Prussians, what do they say?
That their Kaiser is supreme.
And the English, what do they say?
That George the Third is sovereign.
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"Yisgadal v 'yiskadash shmei raboh-
Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name."
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this.
Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmei raboh-
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name."

(From  It can be heard sung in the original Yiddish with musical accompaniment, here.)

So much of the Torah is "command the Children of Israel."  Indeed, even our parsha opens with this phrase: "v'ata tizaveh et Benei Yisrael," and now you should command the Children of Israel.  Unquestionably the people must be taught the laws and given religious guidance.  But a leader only earn the right to do this if this leader has first truly and deeply identified with the people - their longing, their concerns, their struggles, their aspirations.  Only if he is prepared to see the best of every individual, only if he is prepared to argue, even with God, in their defense.  Then may one wear the priestly garments, then may one don the mantle of religious leadership, and then and only then, will one truly merit being a klei kodesh, a holy vessel unto God.

Shabbat Shalom!

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