This week please enjoy a D’var Torah from veteran Rosh Eidah Jeremy Fineberg. Jeremy, a graduate of Brandeis University, is currently serving as a madrich (counselor) on Nativ, the Conservative Movement’s post-High School program in Israel. A long-time Ramahnik, Jeremy will be returning to camp as Rosh Nivonim for the 2013 summer!
Parashat Tetzaveh and Purim
This week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, is one of a number of portions that represent a break from the excitement of Exodus (plagues, sea splitting, Mount Sinai, Golden Calf) to focus on the laws given after the Ten Commandments. For me, the laws in this parsha are hard to relate to since the majority of them concern the clothing of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), an institution that no longer exists. As we search for meaning this Shabbat, in 2013, right before we celebrate Purim, we are left with a variety of questions: How is this relevant for Jews now? What can modern Jews gain from learning about the minutiae of the laws of the Kohen Gadol, when we are thousands of years away from the last time anyone wore clothes like this at all? When was the last time anyone read the instructions, got out a sewing machine, and attempted to make the בגדי הקדש – holy clothing of the Kohen Gadol? Finally, is there any connection between the Kohen Gadol’s clothing and the upcoming holiday of Purim?
A month ago, a close friend of mine sent me this picture, which actually helped answer all of my questions. The photo is taken from Walmart’s online store, from the “All Halloween Costumes” section and is titled: “Dress up America Jewish High Priest Children’s Costume.” I’m happy that Walmart offers this costume, because taking one look at it helped me find some of the answers to my questions.
Tetzaveh describes in great detail what many of us would consider to be the actual clothing of the Kohen Gadol, like his tunic, robe, even underwear. However, the parsha is just as concerned with the “bling” of the Kohen Gadol– including the hoshen (the iconic breastplate containing numerous precious stones) a golden forehead plate, and golden bells on the hem of the robe. Aside from the explicitly stated ritual significance of some of the extra articles, why is the Torah so concerned with making the Kohen Gadol look good? The answer lies in God’s instructions to Moses:
ועשית בגדי קדש לאהרון אחיך, לכבוד ולתפארת.
“And you will make holy clothing for Aaron your brother, for splendor and beauty” (Exodus 28:2)
If the Kohen Gadol is going to wear these clothes while performing the most important functions of his office, and they are called “holy” why do they also need to be splendid and beautiful? One answer is the concept of hiddur mitzvah. Hiddur mitzvah is the act of enhancing a mitzvah by making it more beautiful, better tasting, better sounding, etc. This is the reason why we often use a pretty silver cup for Kiddush instead of a paper cup, why we go to great lengths and many activities to beautify our m’komot tefila (prayer spaces), and why some Jews go to great lengths to find a particularly beautiful etrog. Hiddur mitzvah in terms of the holy garments means exceptionally beautiful and “blinged out” clothes fit for one of the Kohen Gadol’s most important job, an almost face-to-face reception with the King of Kings.
On the other hand, Purim is usually associated with silly clothing. So how do we reconcile this week’s parsha with this weekend’s holiday? Purim is connected to the idea of hester panim– the hiding of God’s face. As many of us learned in Hebrew school, God’s name is not mentioned at all in the Megillah. Often this is associated with the idea of Hashem using seemingly natural events to influence the world. As opposed to the other books of the Tanakh, where God takes an active role in the plights of the Jewish people, Esther, Mordechai, and even Haman (Boo!) just happen to be in the right place at the right time to ensure the safety of the Jews. Just as God’s face is hidden in the Megillah, we hide our faces as well, with fun costumes that are a part of every Purim celebration.
So what do masks and costumes have to do with the beauty and splendor of the Kohen Gadol’s clothing? They are, in their own way, both examples of hiddur mitzvah. They are ways for us to aesthetically enhance the mitzvoth and therefore our connection to God. When we celebrate Purim, we acknowledge God’s confusing and hidden nature and take it one visual step further by changing our appearance, often in silly ways. When we celebrate times of the calendar when God feels more present, such as during Kabbalat Shabbat on the shore of Lake Buckatabon or seudah shlisheet singing in the hadar ochel, we put on our nicest clothes to make a good thing even better.
Chag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!