Tetzaveh: Snow Day D’var Torah


Services on Friday night, February 23rd are cancelled because of the snow.

Here is a D’var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh

The second half of the book of Exodus describes the construction of the portable sanctuary and the ritual objects which filled and that the priests would use in their service. We live in a time where the images of the Temple service are no longer familiar to us. Our ritual clothing is far different then the detailed outfit of the high priest which is only familiar to those that search amazon for Haredi purim costumes and remember the Ark opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite the lack of practical application, the symbolism and interpretation of the different ritual objects provide rich material to consider the role of religious leaders and the way we understand our community.

In many areas of ritual law, we see the conflict between priorities. In most cases, the social necessity will win out over the ritual obligation. The rabbis were unanimous in their agreement that the actions that can save a life take precedence over the ritual requirements of Shabbat. The burial of a person who has no other person to bury them takes precedence over many ritual actions.

In our Torah portion this week, Tetzaveh, we read about the description of the High Priest’s ritual clothing. His outfit includes a headpiece called a Tzitz which is engraved with the worlds “Holy to God.” Wearing this headpiece was supposed to make God more responsive to the prayers. The rabbis  of the Talmud (Yoma 7a-8a) interpret this in a few different ways, but I am most interested in the way that the rabbis view this headpiece as something that allows an impure priest to give an offering.

Ritual impurity in the Bible was neither good nor bad. Impurity arose around actions like handling a corpse, engaging in sexual intercourse, and touching certain types of crawling animals. The idea of impurity served to separate these themes from the ritual space of the Temple. Burial of the dead is an incredibly holy act, but it is separate from the ritual themes of public worship. Separating ritual impurity of the Temple defined the Temple as a space with

This reflects a larger discussion about conflicts in ritual priorities. In many areas of ritual law, we see the conflict between priorities. In most cases, the social necessity will win out over the ritual obligation. The rabbis were unanimous in their agreement that the actions that can save a life take precedence over the ritual requirements of Shabbat. The burial of a person who has no other person to bury them takes precedence over many ritual actions.

In our case the two priorities are creating a separation between ritual impurity and the Temple service, and the need to have public ritual to recognize atonement and celebration. By using the headpiece to make up for ritual impurity which was necessarily part of the day to day life of ancient Israelites, the rabbis recognize that the high priest is a human who acts in a role that serves the larger community.

Later scholars will debate the actual application of this teaching, but I think it serves as an important reminder that prayer and ritual are times where we try to transcend our day to day concerns by finding support in a community. Each of us, of course, bring our deepest concerns with us into prayer, but in the best of times, prayer allows us to broaden our perspective so that we are able to understand our problems in the larger context of our lives and know that we are able live with them with the support of our community.

Using the headpiece to allow an impure priest to give an offering means that the role of the priest in serving the community takes precedence over the anxiety about his own connection to mortality. This means that the ritual object takes on symbolic importance in the same way that a superhero’s disguise becomes the image of saving someone more than the concerns of the person behind the mask. There are times when we need to focus on the needs of the person behind the role, but sometimes communal responsibility takes precedence.

Another interpretation focuses on the way that the priest must remember that he is wearing the headpiece. Not only do the people see the item as transforming someone into the role of a priest, the priest must also remember that he is in a role serving his community. This focus is supposed to change the quality of his service so that he takes his role seriously.

In this coming week, I hope that we are able to remember our role in serving others. Even when we are imperfect, even when we feel pulled to think about other things, we are able to shift our focus, if only for a moment, to the person immediately in front of us that needs our help. To do so, we may have to see ourselves in the role of friend, parent, spouse, or child. At the same time, we cannot let ourselves become fully defined by these roles which claim our attention. We must also find the moments when we shift our attention back to our own human needs and remember to also serve ourselves.