Tetzaveh: Lessons Learned from the Kohanim

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Tetzaveh focuses on the kohanim, their garments and how they were to be readied for their new roles. Along the way, we learn about how the Torah sees us them and us, non-kohanim, functioning in a society that follows the Torah.

Completeness, Readiness, or Just Qualifying for the Job

Onkelos more than once translates the Torah’s use of the word milui, to fill up, with a form of shilum, perfecting. When Gd speaks of the people who will come to build the Mishkan, 28;3, Gd terms them people asher miletiv ruah hochmah, whom I have filled with a spirit of wisdom, where Onkelos writes ashlemit imehon, to whom I have granted perfection. When the Torah speaks of filling the Hoshen, the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol with stones, it again uses the idea of milui, and Onkelos stays consistent, turning it into completeness.

He breaks the pattern in 29;33 and 35 in a way I think explains what he meant here. There, the Torah terms the sacrifices to be offered when inaugurating Aharon and his sons as priests as being lemalei et yadam. Based on what we have seen so far, we would have expected Onkelos to use a version of shalem, complete.

Instead, he writes lekarava yat karbanehon, to offer their sacrifices. I suggest the switch tells us milui for Onkelos meant to be complete or perfectly suited to a particular task. The people who would build the Mishkan had been given the exact form of wisdom they needed to do their job, were therefore perfect for that job at that time. The stones on the Hoshen were fit exactly to the space given for them, were complete for what they were supposed to do.

With the priests, the sacrifices granted them permission to serve in the Mishkan going forward. Nothing in the ceremony made them more fit, only more certified. Ramban noted on 28;1, Aharon’s four sons had to be part of the dedication ceremony because they would not have qualified simply by being living descendants of their father. Rashi tells us, elsewhere, Pinhas was not originally a kohen because he was already alive at the time the Mishkan was built, and hereditary priesthood started with those born after this ceremony. In a moment, we will also see how crucial the clothes of a kohen were to the status, reducing the importance of personal qualifications.

To be a kohen did not depend on any particular fitness for the role. Pinhas later does become a priest, kohanim can put on their clothing. To accommodate the difference, I suggest, Onkelos adjusted the translation.

Making Them Ready

On the other hand, the acts that qualified them, turned them into kohanim, did change them as well. Rashi says the phrase u-mileta et yadam, 28;41, “and you shall fill their hands,” (by dressing Aharon and his sons in their priestly garb) always implies hinukh, a word we commonly use for education. Rashi doesn’t mean it quite in the same way common usage does, because he says the word indicates readying for a task.

By clothing the priests properly—essential to the status of kehunah, being a kohen, as we said above and will see next—Moshe is giving them what they need to fulfill the duties of their office. (There are those in the field of education who say that as well, such as Howard Gardner, who once wrote that education all societies has always been to prepare children to take their adult roles in that society; I am not sure most educators today, certainly Jewish ones, are as aware of that necessity).

Clothes are surprisingly central to the kohanim’s identity. Rashi three times—28;35, 43, and 29;39, the first two where the Torah applies a death penalty to serving in the Mishkan without them, the last the one we just saw—stresses that these clothes literally make the man, a kohen who performs a service in the Mishkan without the right clothes incurs capital liability. (Zevahim 17b linked the idea to 29;9, where the Torah speaks of garbing them in the clothing as a way to give them the priesthood; Rashi does not say it there, even as he echoes the Talmud’s clear idea a kohen who serves without these garments is a zar, a non-kohen, liable for the same punishment as any other Jew who serves).

Protecting Their Father From Destruction

Ramban detects another aspect of the dedication ceremony. The Torah prescribes an unusual hatat, 29;14, burnt instead of eaten as usual. Although he thought the idea of a Mishkan predated the sin of the Golden Calf, he agrees this hatat atoned for Aharon’s role in that sin. His sons had to participate in the sacrifice, too, placing their hands and weight on it (although we have no reason to think they participated in the sin, I think Ramban means) because Devarim 9;20 tells us Gd’s wrath was kindled against Aharon lehashmido, to destroy him.

Ramban says this “destruction” includes kilui banim, his sons being taken from this world. There is a lesson here about family and continuity, how we each of us necessarily count as our parents’ legacy.

(It also perhaps explains–Ramban does not say this–why living descendants were not included automatically in the priesthood. If Gd really wanted Aharon as kohen, the sons had to be included because it would be a form of kilui banim to exclude them, a direct blow to Aharon, because sons are so clearly continuity of the father. Once the sons were included, and they would produce more sons to keep the priesthood going, the other living descendants were not brought in because it was never meant to be Aharon as he was then, it was Aharon going forward who would be the kehunah.)

The Remarkable Hoshen

The breastplate the Kohen Gadol wore had stones on it. Onkelos and Rashi disagree about whether those stones were held in place by prongs (Onkelos), raised above the breastplate a bit, or sat in a golden setting on the breastplate (and the shoulders).

Onkelos thinks the names of the tribes were engraved into those stones (as signets have their writing engraved, so they produce raised writing when pressed onto a parchment), and the Torah speaks of it as the writing of a signet in terms of the clarity of the writing. He also translates the names of those stones, seems to have thought he knew what they were, where we no longer do.

Beyond those technicalities, 28;30 has Gd tell Moshe to insert the Urim and Tumim into the Hoshen. Ramban and Rashi agree this means putting the most explicit Divine Name into the breastplate somehow; Ramban thinks we are not told how because this was done by Moshe or Gd, not the artisans.

The Torah indicates as much to us, he says, when it refers to the Urim ve-Tumim with an identifying heh before each word (et haUrim), where other parts of the Mishkan do not—the command to build an Ark, for example, says simply veasita Aron, make an Ark. Like the angels Gd placed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden after expelling Adam and Hava, whom the Torah also calls hakeruvim, the Urim ve-Tumim were made specifically by Gd for this metaphysical purpose.

A Level Below Prophecy

However they were inserted into the Hoshen, Ramban assumes it was while  Aharon was already wearing it, as if the Urim veTumim had to be introduced into a working Hoshen. To employ them, the kohen would take a question from a leader of the Jewish people (this form of access to Gd was for national issues), and focus on the Divine Name in the Urim. That would lead letters on the Hoshen to light up in a way only the kohen could see—Ramban says it was a level below prophecy and above a bat kol, a Heavenly voice that would occasionally be heard in the Second Temple period, when they no longer had the Urim ve-Tumim.

(It’s another example in my growing collection of elements of tradition that would leave room for doubters to doubt, and tradition to be sure of its truth nonetheless. Ramban thinks if you or I saw the kohen consult the Urim veTumim, we would see him look at the Hoshen, would see nothing happen, and then him give an answer. It’s also obviously ripe for abuse in the hands of an unscrupulous Kohen Gadol, if there ever was one.)

The Urim let the kohen see the letters, the Tumim gave him the insight to read the message correctly. (Here and in the introduction to his commentary, Ramban makes a point of the flexibility of language, how letters can be grouped to form other words than the ones we see. Here, the letters would light up all at once, like a word jumble, and the Tumim would make the kohen tam, whole, able to infer the right message.

Anthropomorphism Never

Offering sacrifices was going to become a central function of the kohanim, and twice in this parsha the Torah reminds us part of the role of sacrifices was to be a reiah nihoah, a pleasing smell. We are not surprised to see Onkelos each time deflect the possibility Gd cares about aromas, rendering it leitkabbala beraava, to be accepted with good will.

I brought it up here because Rashi makes a point of it as well, in both 29;18 and 25, the pleasing smell comes from the proper obedience of Gd’s commands. Rashi is not usually as sensitive to the issue, making it more noticeable, more of a point of concern that we not think Gd cares about nice smells.

Kohanim as One Third of the Pillars of Society

The Torah tells us to put a zer, a golden crown or border (there is a debate about where the zer went; Rashi thinks it was on the top of these items), on the mizbah hazahav, the altar included in the furnishings of the rooms of the Mishkan, 30;3. Back in Parshat Terumah, the Torah had prescribed a similar zer for the Aron and the Shulhan, the table on which the Jews would put the lehem ha-panim, the twelve loaves of bread baked fresh each week.

In each case, Rashi tells us what the crown symbolizes. The zer on the Aron symbolizes the crown of Torah, reasonable because the Ark contains the luhot, the Tablets with the ten pronouncement Gd made at Sinai. The table symbolizes the monarchy, because it speaks of wealth and gedulah, power or high social rank (there was a tradition that eating of the bread would lead to wealth, a reason kohanim wanted to have eaten of it at least once in their lives).

The altar symbolizes the priesthood, says Rashi. He thus sees the furnishings inside the Mishkan (and, later, Temple) reflecting what he likely thought of as the three necessary elements of a proper Jewish society: Torah, the monarchy (to lead affairs of state, the mundane life of a people), and kehunah (a Mishnah in Avot speaks of these as the three crowns in the Jewish people, and Rambam points out only one of those crowns is available to all of us, the crown of Torah).

It seems to point to a Jewish society involved in Torah, in ordinary life and politics, while retaining an active service connection to Gd. That latter element falls to the kohanim to foster and preserve.

Tetzaveh shows us kohanim being readied for their job, given the certification to perform it, the clothes vital to their status, and some insight into the roles they would play in keeping the Jewish people in contact with their Creator and Father in Heaven.

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