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Our Hands Are Full

UMJC, Featured Blog by David Nichol, March 5, 2020

Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20–30:10

In Parashat Tetzaveh we get the first explicit mention of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel. While priests are mentioned earlier in the book of Exodus, this is where Aaron’s family explicitly gets the job. The first order of business seems to be their wardrobe: “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment” (28:3). As they say, “The ephod makes the man,” and Aaron’s family gets an entire chapter devoted to the rich attire that signifies its priestly role.

Moses is notably not mentioned by name in Tetzaveh, but the grammar seems to emphasize his role. The first words of the parasha, “You shall further instruct the Israelites”, begin not just with tetzaveh (command) but ve’atah tetzaveh, adding emphasis on the “you”—perhaps better translated “you, yourself, shall instruct the Israelites” (Exod 27:20). The same emphasis begins chapter 28: “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron” (28:1, also see 28:3). In fact the entire parasha seems to be directed specifically at Moses, employing the singular imperative tense throughout, yet doesn’t use his name a single time.

The commentator Ramban sees this grammatical nuance as directing Moses to do the work personally and not to delegate any of the details. However, while Moses is clearly the responsible party, making the garments is also a communal endeavor. Actually making the garments are those from among the community, poetically described as “the wise of heart that I have filled with the spirit of wisdom” (28:3).

So, while the only people explicitly named in the parasha are Aaron and his sons, Moses is hardly peripheral. We are also introduced to some as-yet-unnamed artisans who are “filled” (maleh) with a spirit of wisdom who have the artistry and technical skills to actually make the garments.

What follows is a description of the garments for the priestly service (chapter 28) that is perhaps more detailed than modern readers would prefer—unless you are a clothing designer trying to make them, in which case it is frustratingly spare on details. The garments include a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. “Put these [garments] on your brother Aaron and on his sons as well, anoint them, and ordain [umil’eita et yadam] them and consecrate them to serve Me as priests.” (28:41)

In this verse and several others, Moses is commanded to ordain Aaron and sons as priests, as in Exodus 29:9, “umil’eita yad-Aharon veyad banav,” literally “you shall fill Aaron’s hands, and the hands of his sons.” Rashi relates this idiom of filling their hands to a French custom:

When someone is inaugurated, entering upon a particular task from that day on, his hand is “filled” with it. Here in Europe, when someone is appointed to a position, the ruler puts a leather glove in his hand, calling it a “gauntlet,” by means of which he is invested with the office and takes possession of it. Such a transmittal of authority is “filling the hand.” (Rashi on 28:41)

Just as Moses commanded the building of the mishkan, a physical structure to house the Presence of God among the people, now he builds a social structure, starting with priests who facilitate and mediate God’s Presence.

But it is not enough to consecrate them or anoint them. Even the clothes do not fully “make the man.” Additionally, their hands must be filled; they must have something to put their hands to. They need a job. Which is perhaps why, immediately after the consecration ceremony, before the parasha ends, even before the instructions for the building of the altar, God commands concerning the daily tamid offering. The tamid is the workhorse of the sacrifices, performed twice daily, the primary occupation of the priests serving.

“Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar: two yearling lambs each day, regularly. You shall offer the one lamb in the morning, and you shall offer the other lamb at twilight . . . a regular burnt offering throughout the generations, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord. For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence.” (29:38–43)

The priests are not set apart simply for the sake of being set apart; while there may be inherent value in being set apart (that is, holiness), the priests of Israel are not an aristocracy as an end unto themselves. Rather, they are set apart for a vocation, a calling. They have a purpose.

One (perhaps underrated) element to healthy, thriving humans is a sense of purpose. In a recent TED Talk, Johann Hari, an author who specializes in depression, points to a growing body of research showing that among other things, not having a sense of purpose is related to depression. What’s more, it is important for people to have this purpose in the context of social bonds.

In order to be a whole person we each need a vocation that is bigger than ourselves. It need not be glamorous or excessively heroic, and its main ingredients may simply be caring for the people put in front of us. But it must demand something of us. This is why it is not enough to consecrate Aaron and his sons as priests. Rather, Moses is further instructed to “fill their hands” by giving them the tamid offering to perform daily.

Not that the tamid was all they did. It would trivialize the role of the priests to think of them as essentially glorified slaughterhouse-workers. Their real vocation was mediating the Presence of Hashem to the rest of the community, as judges, communal leaders, and in the overall maintenance of Israelite religion. This first offering, however, gets them started with something practical, achievable, and meaningful.

Now that the Temple service is not with us, who performs these varied tasks? While Aaron’s descendants are still given a place of honor in our communities today, they no longer play a central role in Israel’s worship. Yeshua acts as the High Priest (Hebrews 4:14), and an aspect of the priesthood is given to all the children of Israel. As the priest’s garments are described, you may notice various parts made partially or wholly of blue, or techelet. For example, the breastpiece is “held in place by a cord of blue,” bipetil techelet (28:28). This expression is found in another place in Torah, but as part of an otherwise inscrutable commandment:

The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue (petil techelet) to the fringe at each corner. (Num 15:38–39)

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