Project Runway: Priest Edition

Last week, we read in some detail about the building of the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, aka the Miskhan, aka the Dwelling Place of the Divine. In this week’s parasha, called Tetzaveh, we read the elaborate descriptions of the clothing that the priests must wear when they serve God.

Our storyteller from G-dcast comments that the Torah is often sketchy about details we would like to know more about. But here, in describing the clothes of the priests, “the Torah goes into OCD mode” — there are so many precise and detailed descriptions, one might think that God was instructing Ralph Lauren on his new fall fashion line.

Besides the ephod and the breastplate of decision (see Exodus chapter 28 verses 6-21), where gorgeous precious stones are enumerated (carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, jacinth, agate, crystal, beryl, lapis lazuli, and jasper), I love the description of the hem of the priests’ robes (verses 33-35).

Jackie Hoffman, in her 'Shavuot' song. Click the image to listen. (Note: lyrics aren't fully PG-friendly.)

The yarns to be used are blue, crimson and purple; the design specifies embroidered pomegranates, and they are to be placed all the way around the bottom hem. And then, in between each pomegranate, there is to be a golden bell attached, a real bell, which will produce sound as the priest moves. Sounds exquisite, on par with the clothes the women of Downton Abbey wear when they visit their cousins’ castle in Scotland! In our own times, the highest ranking priests of the Catholic Church wear sacral vestments that are in the tradition of these ornate, highly decorative and expensive garments.

This leads us to ask some questions about both the Torah’s descriptions and why so many religious traditions dictate the exact kind of clothing to be worn when one is serving God. Why is it so important to know about the sash, the turban, the robed tunic, the exact colors, and what fabrics need to be part of the clothing? And further, why should God care so much about what the Priests wear when they perform the ritual sacrifices on behalf of the people? When a Catholic worshipper of today goes to church and witnesses the Mass performed by richly garbed cardinals (or even the Pope), how does the clothing worn by the priests impact the experience of the worshipper?

Anglican Archbishop and the Catholic Pope know what to wear!

As we approach the next book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, we will see that many prescribed rituals fall into the “OCD” mode, as the video’s storyteller says. Look at the instructions for the sacrifices in Exodus 29 verses 19-21. This is what the priests, in their finery, must do: they must “…slaughter the ram and take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and on the ridges of his sons’ right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet; and dash the rest of the blood against every side of the alter round about.” Wow! Talk about precise instructions that are pretty inscrutable. Here we have it in abundance.

Even though Jews no longer offer animal sacrifices, we still have laws that are considered puzzling and have no obvious purpose. Those laws are known as “hukkim” as opposed to laws which make some common sense, which are known as “mishpatim.” A mishpat (single form of mishpatim) is something like “don’t steal” or “don’t kill.” The sorts of laws in the category of hukkim are like the laws of kashrut, dietary restrictions for keeping kosher. We just do them (if we want to be observant) because they were commanded, not because they necessarily make sense or make society work any better.

Before we leave the parasha of Tetzaveh, with its opening focus on the clothing of the priests, I also want to acknowledge the lovely coincidence that the Torah reading points to the holiday that comes on its heels — the joyous holiday of Purim, which falls on the 14th of Adar, which is the evening of February 23 through the 24th this year. Parashat Tetzaveh and Purim both have clothing and costumes interwoven in them. One of the fun aspects of the Purim festivities is dressing up in costumes and disguises. This is our topsy-turvy festival where nothing is what it seems. In Hebrew, the word for clothing is beg’ed, the root, b.g.d. This root also forms the word bag’ad, to betray or lie. Think of it this way: when we wear clothes, we cover-up our bodies and a “cover-up” is also used to describe hiding something, not being transparent, maybe even betraying someone’s trust. On the holiday of Purim, we masquerade; we put on costumes to appear to be someone other than ourselves. What is it about covering up or hiding oneself that is so central to this festival? And what is it that the clothing of the priests is covering up, if anything?

Wishing you a very merry Purim!!

Bereshit! Again!

On Simchat Torah this year (Tuesday Oct. 9) we finished reading the entire Five Books of Moses and rolled the Torah scroll back to the first of the Five Books, Bereshit/In the Beginning, more commonly known by its Latin name, Genesis.  This Shabbat, October 13, our parasha (weekly Torah reading) is called Shabbat Bereshit, and we start the annual reading cycle over again with Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.  I don’t know about you, but I think new beginnings are exciting in and of themselves, partly because we have an expectation that something new and surprising is going to unfold.

No matter that we may have read these verses before — in fact, we may have read them many times. And no matter that echoes of these verses have entered our lexicon and the consciousness of Western Civilization. After all, here is the biblical creation story — the poetic rendering of the way our world began. This is where we here sonorous, lofty phrases such as “Let there be Light!” This is where we meet some of the best known Bible figures: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah.  Lots of us have memories of these guys from our childhood, from the comic book version of the Bible, or a beautifully rendered children’s book.

These first five chapters and the first 8 verses of chapter 6 are so chock full of interesting things — so many puzzles, so many questions, so much angst and drama and so many beautiful images — that it is really hard to focus on just one thing.  In fact, the creators of the G-dcast produced TWO renditions of this Parasha; watch both — each has different big ideas!

Chapter 1 gives us the famous creation story. But right away, in chapter 2, we get another creation story!  How does that happen? What are the differences between these two stories? Which do you like more?  Why do you suppose that the editors of the Torah kept both stories?  Chapter 3 gives us the story of the Garden of Eden, and how the two humans interacted with their new pristine environment, with each other, and with God.  In Chapter 4 we read more about this first human family, the two sons born to the first couple, and the first murder!  Chapter 5 provides the first biblical genealogy, which some folks think has lots of fascinating tidbits to chew on.  And in the first verses of Chapter 6, we get the set-up to the flood saga…

Doesn’t it seem like this should be divided into at least a month of Shabbat readings instead of all being packed into one week??

Lots of people have favorite parts in Parashat Bereshit. I happen to love verses 27 and 28 of Chapter 1:

And God created adam (human) in the Divine image,
in the image of the Divine God created It —
male and female God created them (gender sensitive translation)
God blessed them and God said to them:  “Be fruitful and increase
fill the earth and master it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky
and all living things that creep on the earth.”

Why?  Well, it embodies a core Jewish belief—that each human is created in the image of God, and, at the very beginning, the first human was both male and female, some mystical androgynous being that later was separated.

The Death of Moses and The Torah’s End

Every year, like clockwork, we get to the last chapter of the Torah on the very last holiday of the fall season, Simhat Torah (literally: “rejoicing with the Torah”) coming exactly 23 days after Rosh Ha-Shana (the new year.)   On Simhat Torah, we read Deuteronomy chapters 33 and 34, describing the death of Moses, the greatest prophet of Israel, the last to speak with God face to face.  Then we begin the Five Books of Moses (aka the Torah) all over again with Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1 verse 1.  Since Bereshit typically gets all the press (who can resist the story of creation with its Garden of Eden mysteries…) perhaps it’s worth a moment to reflect on the end of the torah, called, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing).

Moses winds up his lengthy speech (basically the entire book of Deuteronomy) by speaking to each tribe and bestowing a final blessing, in the form of a poem. Each tribe is reminded of its past and the figure after whom it is named—each of Jacob’s sons.  NEW SENTENCES:  After all, the tribes need some final message as they are at the brink of going into the Land promised to their forefathers, way back in Genesis.  They will continue under new leadership—under Joshua—and will finally take hold of their special inheritance. 

Back in Deuteronomy, after Moses’s final poem, we read a prose narration of how Moses, at the ripe old age of 120, takes his leave of this life.  He has a final conversation with his best friend and confidant, God; God tells Moses to take one last look at the whole land set before him, from the vantage point of Mt. Nebo.  Moses sees the entire land bequeathed to the Israelites, although he himself will never enter it.

Verses 5-7: So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord.  He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beit-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.

Wow!  Moses dies with all of his vigor at the age of 120, his eyes “undimmed!” Pretty remarkable!  And who is it exactly that buries Moses?  The text hints that it is none other than the Holy One, the Rock, Moses’s closest and most intimate ally—God.

This last poignant scene has inspired many poets, painters, and other artists to create their own vision of what happened in those sacred moments of transition.  It is Moses’s transition from life to death, but it is also the transition of the Children of Israel to a new period in their development, with Joshua at the helm.

Here’s how Zora Neale Hurston, the African American folklorist and author, describes the scene in her 1939 novel, Moses Man of the Mountain:

But Moses did not sleep on the mountain.  He sat on the mountain top for a while gazing at the dim shapes of things over Jordan in the night…He took his rod in his right hand and lifted it and Nebo trembled.  The moon in its reddest mood became to him a standing place for his feet and the sky ran down so close to gaze on Moses that the seven great suns of the Universe went wheeling around his head. He stood in the bosom of thunder and the zig-zag of lightning above him joined the muttering thunder…The voice of the thunder leaped from peak to plain and Moses stood in the midst of it and said “Farewell.”  Then he turned with a firm tread and descended the other side of the mountain and headed back over the years.

The German (Christian) poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in the early years of the 20th century writes “The Death of Moses”:

None of them were willing, just the dark
defeated angel; choosing a weapon, he cruelly approached
the commanded one. But even he
went clanging backward, upward,
and screamed into the heavens: I can’t!

For through the thicket of his brow, Moses
had patiently noticed him and gone on writing:
words of blessing and the infinite Name. And his eyes
were clear right to the bottom of his powers.

So the Lord, dragging half of the heaven behind him,
came hurling down in person and made up a bed from the mountain;
laid the old man out. From its orderly dwelling
he summoned the soul; and spoke of much they had shared
in the course of an immeasurable friendship.

But finally the soul was satisfied. Admitted
enough had been done, it was finished. Then the old
God slowly lowered down over the old
man his ancient face.  Drew him out with a  kiss.

and into his own older age. And with the hands of creation
he closed the mountain again. So it would be like one,
one created all over again among mountains of earth,
hidden to us.

Translated from German by Franz Wright; from Modern Poems on the Bible by David Curzon.

And finally, a favorite, by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

Moses saw the face of God just once and then
forgot.  He didn’t want to see the desert
not even the Promised Land, only the face of God.
In the fury of his longing he struck the rock,
climbed Mount Sinai and came down again, broke
the Tablets of the Law, made a golden calf, searched through
fire and smoke, but he could remember only
the strong hand of God and His outstretched arm,
not His face. Moses was like a man who tries to recall
the face of someone he loved, but tries in vain.
He composed a police sketch of God’s face
and the face of the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter
leaning over him, a baby in the ark of bulrushes.
He sent that picture to all the tribes of Israel,
up and down the desert, but no one had seen,
no one knew. Only at the end of his life,
on Mount Nebo, did Moses see and die, kissing
the face of God.

Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld from Open Closed Open, “The Bible and You, the Bible and You and Other Midrashim.”

TO CONSIDER:

  1. What do all three modern renditions of the scene of Moses’s death have in common? How are they different?  Why did both poets imagine that Moses died with a “kiss from God”?
  2. How does the description of Moses’s death make you feel?  Is there still regret, or does Moses know it is his time to die?  Do you ever imagine your own ideal death?