Parashat Tetzavveh 5776

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 19 February 2016


Clothed in Divine Light

What is the connection between the ner tamid, the eternal light and the priestly garments in this sidrah?

In a midrash, a Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, we find a comment on the verse from Genesis (3:21): “And the Eternal God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.” It states: In Rabbi Meir’s Torah it was written, not ‘garments of skin (or – spelt with an ayin)’ but ‘garments of light (or– spelt with an alef):’ This refers to Adam’s garments, which were like a torch (shedding radiance), broad at the bottom and narrow at the top.”

Garments are unique in Creation. In this midrashic passage we find that God created the first garments for Adam and Eve but for all other items, humanity has had to harness the resources available in the world around them and transform them using their intelligence and creativity. As Nehama Leibowitz puts it, “Adam’s Creator taught him neither how to make a fire nor till the soil nor build a house. Adam had to find it out all by himself, whereas garments were providentially provided for him. Even the act of donning them was not left to Adam (p.529).” In Hebrew, Adam, stands not only for ‘Adam’ but for ‘humanity.’ This direct gift from God was given not to an exclusive individual or group of people, but to humanity.

There is a tension inherent in the garments that are described in Lucy-Beth’s Torah portion. As we, Liberal Jews view them, they are exclusive, only to be worn by the priests and the most glorious of the garments, only to be worn by the High Priest as he entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. As Avivah Gottleib Zornberg describes it: “The position of the High Priest as representing God’s glory is reflected in the aesthetic of his regalia. In a sense, the body and soul of the man within the clothes become irrelevant: his appearance is all-important. The ecstatic intensity with which the High Priest was seen at the most exalted moment of his service is described in lyrical verses recited on Yom Kippur. Triumphant with joy, he emerges from the Holy of Holies; the only human being ever to experience that space, which is ordeal and intimacy, he has achieved atonement for himself and for all his people:

Like a tent stretched over the supreme beings – was the appearance of the Priest.
Like the thunderbolts issuing from the brilliance of the angels – was the appearance of the Priest.
Like the image of the rainbow in the cloud – was the appearance of the Priest.
Like a rose in a pleasure garden – was the appearance of the Priest.
Like a garland set on the king’s brow – was the appearance of the Priest.
Like the glow on the bridegroom’s face – was the appearance of the Priest.
Like the purity of a pure diadem – was the appearance of the Priest.

I can see the nostalgic awe and majesty of the moment: The sheer simplicity of the choreography complimenting the grandeur of the garments that framed the light of the High Priest’s face. But I am left wondering about the body and soul of the man whose clothes have rendered him irrelevant; and I am left cold by the thought that the role of his people was merely to observe, yes to be inspired, but still only to observe. I guess that is why I do not wear a robe.

I am rather inspired by the Midrash on the verse from Proverbs (20:27): “Ner Adonai, nishmat Adam – the lamp of the Eternal is the soul of humanity.” The Midrash goes: “The Blessed Holy One said: ‘Let My lamp be in your hand and yours in Mine.’ And what is the lamp of God? That is Torah as Scripture says in Proverbs 6:23: “For a commandment is a candle and Torah is a light.’” “What is that commandment that is a lamp? Whoever does a mitzvah – a good deed or a ritual observance – is like one who lights a lamp before the Blessed Holy One and gives life to his soul which is called a lamp – “the lamp of the Eternal is the soul of humanity.””

Through each one of us, we can make God’s dark light visible in the world, through our being, through our soul and through our actions. The garments of the priesthood separate them from the people. The Rabbi is supposed to be the disciple of Moses, living fully within the community of Israel.

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