After the revelation at Sinai, how do we meet the challenge of becoming "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"? Moses repeats "all the commands … and all the rules … (and) the people answer with one voice: … 'All the things that God has commanded we will do!' " The Torah translates that lofty hope into a clear plan for building and furnishing the mishkan, God's earthly home. In this week's portion, we learn about the protocol of preparation for our ancestors' religious ritual, and about the priests' vestments and sacramental apparel.
The portion opens with directions for kindling ritual lamps and concludes with instructions for preparing incense for the altar. The reader is thus reminded that we have entered God's dwelling place, a place of flickering shadow and particular aromas. When our senses are awakened, we are often surprised by spiritual discovery.
My teacher, Professor Melila Hellner-Eshed, shares the following teaching from the Zohar, the mystical Torah commentary and foundational text of Kabbalah. Commenting on, "You shall bring forward your brother Aaron and his sons from among/the midst of the Israelites/Children of Israel to serve me as priests …, " the Zohar asks, "Why from the midst of the 'Children of Israel' "?
The Zohar points out that the priests come from the midst of the Israelite community. Aaron and his sons begin their sacred journey; this connection with and identification with the community then becomes a primary criteria for holy service.
Modern Jews often struggle with this portion, for we no longer follow a proscribed ritual that includes meticulously garbed officiants, animal and bread sacrifices, and rituals of anointing and consecration. Contemporary rabbis are not primarily ritual experts. While rabbis do facilitate and guide families and individuals through life-cycle ceremonies, the contemporary Jewish community looks to rabbis to serve as teachers and pastoral counselors.
The Zohar's insight that one who serves must come from "the midst" of the community transcends time. All who serve — as healers, legal experts, teachers or guides — will have greater success if they acknowledge that their journeys to expertise began when they were "in the midst" of the people.
The Zohar continues, reminding us that the ultimate distinction is not between the people and their priests, but between the people and God. The holy path to which the Israelites committed themselves at Sinai is reflected in how they — and we, their descendants — live our days.
By appointing appropriate leaders, garbing them in distinction and creating a ritual to celebrate their consecration to sacred service, the Israelites "below" created a mirror for the splendor of the heavens that exist "above." The Zohar continues: "For the Children of Israel exist below to open ways, to illumine paths, to kindle lamps, and to draw everything from below above, so that all will be one."
Tetzaveh opens with directions for illuminating the path of all who enter the mishkan, which later becomes the site for the study of Torah, the foundation of Jewish life. The portion concludes with instructions for sweetening the service of those who dwell, even for a short time, in God's house.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]