Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fashion Statement in the Temple: Sources of Guidance in Parashat T’tzaveh

This week’s portion is about fashion statements. In particular, it is about the priestly vestments and their role in “making the man” (in this case, it really is a singular male) and influencing his decisions for the nation. One of the elements of his wardrobe that has captured the attention of commentators and physical artists alike is the breast plate, the choshen mishpat that was worn by the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest. On this breast plate there were 12 precious stones, each one representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

I think that it is important to retain the idea of touchstones in our lives. The priest needed to have over his heart always the names of the peoples he served, his extended family members, in order to make the best decisions for the community. He could not make decisions alone, nor could he have the present in mind exclusively as he made his decisions.

In remembering the 12 tribes, he remembered all of their members, past, present, and future. In Exodus 28:29 we are told that the priest has this breastplate for the sake of “remembrance.” Effective leadership means addressing your entire constituency and employing the knowledge of those who came before you. Without this memory and acknowledgement of those who have come before us, we cease to be situated individuals, and our actions, decisions, and rituals lose the power that comes from a rich context.

As the Baal Shem Tov wrote, ““Remembering is the source of redemption, while forgetting leads to exile.” In response to this comment, the Etz Hayyim Torah commentary asserts simply, “Our identities have been shaped by those who came before us.” As much as we would like to think that we are capable of creating something, including ourselves, מחדש, from new, it simply is not true. To succumb to this folly, even though it is so typically American, is not only dishonest, but prevents one from connecting to the touchstones of our past that can provide us with genuine and helpful guidance.

However, the story does not end there in this parasha. In the final verse we are told, “

י וְכִפֶּר אַהֲרֹן עַל-קַרְנֹתָיו, אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה: מִדַּם חַטַּאת הַכִּפֻּרִים, אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה יְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם--קֹדֶשׁ-קָדָשִׁים הוּא, לַיהוָה. {פ}

10 And Aaron shall make atonement upon the horns of it once in the year; with the blood of the sin-offering of atonement once in the year shall he make atonement for it throughout your generations; it is most holy unto the LORD.'

I thought the Kli Yakar’s comment on this final verse was gorgeous and fitting for the summation of this parasha, And it says “once a year” since on that very day “Yom Kippur” man is made as free of sin as the ministering angels, and man’s soul will be restored to its purity as in the days of old and in former years, and he who is wise will hear this explanation and add his own interpretation.”

The wise man will add his own interpretation. On this day of freedom and absolution from sin, the wise among us are told that we must add our own interpretation. We must make the story our own. There does need to be an individual component, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Without this spirit we would cease to be vibrant, repeating the past without passion or personalization. And without our touchstones, reminding us of our obligation to others and the knowledge of the past, we are simply lost. May this week we strive to hold all of those competing values in tension with each other in order to preserve this very precious dialectic that has brought us here today.

Shabbat Shalom.