PARASHAT TETZAVEH: Exodus 27:20-30:10
Bigdei Kehuna: The Priestly Garments
This week’s parashah is Tetzaveh. The parashah begins with the lamp that is to burn perpetually in the Tabernacle and concludes with the altar of the incense. The vestments of the High Priest are discussed in detail, as is the ceremony of sanctification for Aaron and his sons, which establishes their priesthood.
The role of Aaron and the priests and Levites is very interesting. The concern for the priestly garments is without parallel in any other area of communal or public life and the ceremony described in the sidra is strikingly reminiscent of a coronation. In chapter 29: 6-9, Moses is instructed as follows: “And you shall set the mitre on his (Aaron’s) head and put the holy crown upon the mitre. Then shalt thou take the anointing oil, and pour it upon his head and anoint him. And then you shall bring his sons and put tunics upon them … and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statue; and you shall consecrate Aaron and his sons.” The ‘holy crown’ (nezer hakodesh) was described earlier (28:36) as being a circlet of pure gold with the words ‘Holy to the Lord’ engraved upon it, and the garments are described at the beginning the sidra as “holy garments, for splendour and for beauty.” (The Hebrew – tekavod u’letipheret – is slightly different, as kavod means ‘honour’ or ‘glory’, albeit that ‘tiferet’ can mean ‘splendour’.)
However, all of this was very different indeed from the surrounding civilisations which also had concepts of high priesthood. Unlike the Egyptian Pharoahs, Aaron had no role at all in politics and no political power. Later in the Torah (Numbers 18:20), it is made quite clear that priests and Levites would have no involvement in the political structure because, unlike the other tribes, they were given no share in the land: “You will have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt you have any portion among them.” Instead, the Levites were allotted cities in the different tribal territories. The Levites depended for their living on the mandatory donations of the rest of the community and they had no material basis for any form of political engagement.
It is emphasised from the outset that the Levites are “from among the people of Israel” and their particular closeness to God is not for purposes of elitism or separateness – they are in no way to be a people apart. This becomes most movingly clear in the account of the chosen mishpat, the breastplate of judgement, which contains four rows of precious stones, each one engraved with the name of the Israelite tribes. The breastplate was not only a symbolic reference; it defined Aaron’s purpose in his relationship with God: “And Aaron shall bear the names of the people of Israel in the breastplate of judgement upon his heart, when he goes into the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord, continually.”
Aaron is twice mentioned as a figure of atonement. Aaron wears the crown of God on his forehead, and he “bears the iniquity committed in the holy things, which the people of Israel shall hallow, even in all their holy gifts; and (the crown) shall be always upon him, that (the sacred offerings) be acceptable before God in perpetuity.” Secondly, with reference to the incense altar, Aaron must atone for it once a year, with the blood of the sin offering and make atonement throughout the generations, for “it is most holy unto the Lord.”
The parashah opens with a different role for Aaron and his sons. The people are to bring pure olive oil, so that a lamp will always be alight in the Tabernacle. Aaron and his sons will be responsible for setting it in order and ensuring that it burns from evening until morning before the Lord. “It shall be a statute for ever throughout their generations, on behalf of the people of Israel.”
The late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z”l pointed out that the menorah served no practical purpose; it was a symbol of the holiness of the place, its relation to light. “Light is the genesis – the creation of the world. The primary utterance of creation is ‘Let there be light’. The Midrash asks: ‘From what was light created?’ The answer is whispered: ‘God cloaked Himself in a white shawl and the light of its splendour shone from one end of the world to the other’”. (Genesis Rabbah)
In other words, fundamentally, light does not belong to this world. It is an emanation of a different essence, from the other side of reality. Light is a symbol of the good and the beautiful, of all that is positive. Light as a positive symbol is so prevalent in Biblical Hebrew that redemption, truth, justice, peace and even life itself ‘shine’ and their revelation is expressed in terms of the revelation of light. Even God Himself is described by the Psalmist as “my light and my salvation”.
The eternal light meant that the Tabernacle was indeed a precious place of atonement, but that it was not overwhelmed by a sense of ever-present sinfulness – transcendent light was never extinguished by the transient darkness that afflicts our human experience, and there was a constant awareness of the presence of God’s holiness even in the midst of all our impurities and failings.
The priestly garments gave honour and splendour to the High Priest who lived his life in the presence of God and was a source of atonement and light and peace for the people whom he served with great devotion. Aaron would have been constantly aware of the Divine holiness inscribed on the golden circlet of his crown, while he bore the entire people in his heart and brought them before God as the precious stones in his breastplate, offering their atonement and seeking their reconciliation as a perpetual calling, all the days of his life.