A d’var Torah for parashat Tetzaveh: vestments of beauty

Here’s the d’var Torah I’ll be giving tomorrow morning at Shabbat services. (So if you’re coming to services, you might want to skip this post!) Shabbat shalom to all.

Parashat Tetzaveh floods us with instructions for making sacral vestments for Aaron and his sons: breastpiece, ephod, robe, fringed tunic, headdress, and sash.

Every year I’m amazed by the richness of the sartorial detail. Fine linen. Gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarn. In those days these materials were precious. Even the colors feel significant: the rich sparkle of gold, tkhelet blue like the sky, purple suggesting royalty, crimson like the visible life-force that flows through our veins.

These garments, Torah tells us, should be made by those in whom God has placed hokhmah, wisdom or skill. Hokhmah is an important word. Joseph, who can interpret dreams, is described as having hokhmah; so is Bezalel, chief builder of the mishkan, who can shape reality with the work of his hands. Hokhmah has something to do with making visions manifest. That’s the quality Torah calls for in those who make these holy garments for Aaron and his sons.

The vestments matter because they’re a sign of service. Aaron and his sons will dedicate their lives to serving God; in return, their community enfolds them in these beautiful garments, made to reflect their innate kavod, honor, and tif’aret, beauty.

Today there are no priests, and no temple in which to serve. Instead each of us serves God in the temple of our own hearts, offering words and intentions instead of bulls and sheep. What would it mean to dress ourselves in garments like these?

The Chernobyler rebbe taught that our bodies are themselves garments for the spark of godliness that animates each of us. Deep down, can we know ourselves to be cut from the same cloth as the blue of the sky, the purple of twilight, the liquid gold of setting sun? How can we bring all the glory, all the splendor, all the honor of our being into living in a way that keeps us mindful of our Source?

I want to single out one other piece of High Priestly garb: the jeweled breastplate bearing the names of all the tribes of Israel. Names remind us of the people they represent. Imagine wearing the names of everyone in your family on your chest: the ones you love, the ones who maybe drive you a little crazy, siblings and distant cousins alike. Imagine carrying those names with you on every journey inward into prayer. What would that feel like?

None of us can know what it was like to be a priest in the Temple, to be tasked with making offerings on behalf of the community as Aaron and his sons did. But this week’s Torah portion gives us a chance to enfold ourselves in garments of our imaginations, so that we might know ourselves to be holy, and beautiful, and able to effect change; so those qualities will infuse our lives in everything that we do.

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