Commentary on Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)
In religious and spiritual communities, I am often asked to “shed layers” — that is, to dig deep into my soul, discerning what truly matters and letting go of the rest. There is a sense that spiritual connection has to do with getting rid of the extra stuff that builds up, of drilling into the core of things. So it is interesting that this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is all about putting layers on.
The focus here is on Aaron, who is to become the High Priest of the soon-to-be-built Mishkan (Holy Tabernacle). The Israelites are commanded to give Aaron bigdei kodesh, “holy clothing,” for the sake of dignity and adornment (Exodus 28:2). These sacred garments are to be crafted by skilled artisans and include a breastpiece, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and an “ephod” — which Rashi translates as a sort of fancy apron. Each garment is described in all of its particulars: its gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns, its fine linen, its “braided chains of corded work in pure gold” (Exodus 28:22). It is clear that these are not simple frocks.
As I read of these lavish designs, I can’t help but think of how strange it is that these Israelites are focusing on such things at this moment. They have just been liberated from 400 years of slavery in Egypt; they crossed the Sea of Reeds and received the Torah at Sinai; they are now learning to survive in the wilderness. And what is it that they are to spend their time and energy thinking about? Fancy clothes! How odd.
This odd moment reminds me of a story from Tanna debei Eliyahu Zuta (chapter 2), a 10th-century midrash, about a king who has two beloved servants. He gives each servant a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax and goes away, returning after a time to see what each has done with his gift. One servant, having taken good care of the king’s precious gift, proudly displays the untouched, unmarred raw wheat and flax in a basket. The other has transformed these items: He weaves the flax into cloth and makes it into a table covering; he makes flour from the wheat, sifting, grounding, kneading, and baking it into a delicious bread that he places upon the tablecloth. Which servant will be rewarded by the king?
If this were a story of the spiritual virtue of simplicity and making do with the bare minimum, surely the servant who does nothing would be rewarded. He has made it clear in his inaction that he was satisfied with the raw ingredients that his master provided for him. This is not a story about simplicity, though: The simple man who does not alter the wheat or flax is called an “embarrassment” and a “disgrace,” while the servant who works hard to transform these simple ingredients into a beautiful table spread is lauded by the grateful king. The king likes the transformed items better.
The lesson as it is explained in the midrash has to do with the importance of interpretation in Jewish tradition — the raw ingredient of Torah is not enough; we, as readers of Torah, must add to the conversation with our commentary, thus weaving a more beautiful product from the simple materials. I see another lesson here, though: Nobody should have to get by with just the bare minimum.
As a human rights organization, T’ruah is committed to the idea that all human beings have inalienable rights. These rights are not limited to waking up each day, making a minimum wage, and eating just the right number of calories to survive to the next day. “Human rights” also means being treated with dignity and respect — earning fair wages, eating enough to be full (and confident you know where your next meal is coming from), and having the ability to make decisions about your own life. For T’ruah’s allies in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, being recognized by their farmer employers as human beings, as equals with whom to negotiate, was as important as the tangible benefits they won, like wage increases and zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Similarly, T’ruah works for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to preserve the dignity of both groups. Better wages or simple lack of violence are not enough: As Jews, we must demand more of ourselves and our systems. We must take the raw ingredients that the world has given us and create something better.
Perhaps, absent this Torah portion, the Israelites would have thought the priests could get by with ordinary garb. After all, the priests had no inheritance of their own — they relied on the support of the other Israelites for their survival. Did they really need the fanciest things? The Torah is clear on this question: yes. Yes, and more. When we give, when we work to create a better world, it is not enough to give the bare minimum. We must work for systemic changes that provide every human being with the safety, dignity, respect, and love that they deserve. Rather than shed our layers, we must build new and better layers — layers of gold, of blue, of purple, of crimson, and of the finest that we have to offer.
Abi Weber is a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. She was a T’ruah Israel Fellow in Jerusalem last year and currently serves as a Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun.