Parashat T'zavveh

Exodus 27:20-30:10
Triennial
Reading: 27:20-28:30
February 16, 2008 / 10 Adar I 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Pearl Resnick Dean, The Rabbinical School, JTS.

Which candidate looks most presidential? Sadly, this question often determines our votes. Month after month we watch them stump with their plans for defense and their proposals for health care, but in the end candidates are often judged by how they look. It is painful to admit, but we are often influenced by the most superficial of factors when making important decisions. 

What defines the leadership look? Is it posture, eye contact, or attire? In this election the most conventional requirement—a white male body—has apparently been set aside, thank God. Still we are searching for elusive qualities in our potential leader—a blend of authority and humility, calm and concern, hope and gravitas. The president must blend these opposites with intelligence and grace.

One thing lacking in the presidential look is any royal sign of authority. Our presidents, like other professionals, wear suits. No crowns, special signet rings, necklaces, nor vermilion robes. Just plain suits. This simplicity is striking when you consider the outfits that powerful leaders have historically worn. Royal garments are both precious and richly symbolic.

Few garments have ever been more precious or symbolic that those detailed in this week’s portion. T’tzavveh describes the clothes, jewelry, and headgear of Aaron, the high priest. Every detail—from the pomegranates on the hem of his skirt to the golden diadem declaring him “holy to the Lord”—is symbolic. But the priestly garments are less about the authority of Aaron than about the people he represents to God.

The high priest had a fancy jacket called the ephod. It was a bit like a smock with the two shoulders fastened with epaulet-style brooches made of precious stone set in gold. The interesting thing about these stones is that they were inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. One stone had the first six tribes: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Dan, and Naftali. The other stone had Gad, Asher, Yissachar, Zevulun, Yosef, and Binyamin. As Rashi notes, the names add up to twenty-five letters on each side.

The Torah states: “You shall place the two gems on the shoulders of the ephod; stones of reminder for the Children of Israel; Aaron shall carry their names before the Lord on his two shoulders as a reminder.” (28:12)

I have always thought it odd that God needs a reminder of the children of Israel. But perhaps I had it backward. It is possible that Aaron is required to wear these stones before the Lord in order to remind himself that he stands not on his own behalf, but is rather a representative of the people. This interpretation is supported by several rabbinic sources.

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah records a tradition in the name of Rav Bibi that if even one letter were missing from this inscription, then Aaron’s garment would be invalid. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai adds a famously egalitarian insight. There are three crowns: the crown of royalty, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of Torah. David claimed the royal crown for his family. Aaron claimed the priestly crown for his descendants. But the crown of Torah is waiting for every Jew to claim.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s d’rashah seems like a non sequitur until you get to the end: whoever wears the crown of Torah is like one who wears all three crowns. And whoever lacks the crown of Torah is like one who lacks any crown. In other words, the only thing that allows Aaron to use his priestly crown is the fact that he represents the people of Torah. If even one letter from their names were missing, then he would be unable to offer sacrifice on their behalf.

The Torah says that Aaron must carry the names of the children of Israel on his shoulders as a reminder before the Lord. The breastplate also has gemstones inscribed with the tribes of Israel, right over his heart. It seems that the Torah anticipates the tendency of leaders for self-aggrandizement. This requirement is a reminder of the purpose of leadership—the kohen’s task is not to rule the people, but to represent them before God, offering their sacrifices and making atonement for their sins. He must remember the people—all of their strengths, flaws, and demands—if he is to plead their case before the Lord.

The Zohar expands this point (Leviticus 23a). It notes that while the Torah invites all Israelites to contribute precious materials to the tabernacle, the chieftains are asked to contribute the gemstones for the breastplate worn by the high priest. The Zohar says that this is because the chieftains have “haughty hearts” as a result of their authority. The Torah teaches them to hand over these gems and to see how they are inscribed with the names of the tribes and worn over the heart and shoulders of the high priest. Only by humbling himself in service to the people can the high priest complete his duties. So too must the chieftains be humble if they are to serve as political leaders of the tribes of Israel.

Perhaps it is best that our presidents wear simple suits (although I suspect that they are a cut above retail). Perhaps simplicity is the best guarantee of humility. Yet our parashah points to a different perspective. Precious symbols of authority can paradoxically preserve humility if they symbolize the leader’s mission. The high priest is charged with representing his people to God with these stones of memory on his heart and shoulders. If even one letter—symbolizing one constituency of Israel—is missing, then the priest’s service is rejected.

Think again about the candidates who would lead our nation. If they could wear a symbol of their mission, what would it be? How can we tell if they will represent the people or simply aggregate power for themselves? This type of question cannot be answered in a televised candidates’ debate. But it is this question of character that determines whether a leader is worthy of the people’s trust.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.