The High Priest

Insights into People in the Torah Series for the Torah Portion of Tetzaveh Exodus 27:20-30:10

Moshe Kempinski,

Judaism השר דוד אזולאי בקבר רבי ישמעאל כהן גדול
השר דוד אזולאי בקבר רבי ישמעאל כהן גדול
צילום: PR

In the religious societies of the world, the High Priest was seen as the intermediary between G-d and man. He would be the intercessor who would step in to ally the anger of G-d against a sinning people. He would carry their prayers and pleadings for repentance towards a Deity that somehow seemed just out of touch. We sense this with the description of Malchizedek the King of Salem;

And Malchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest to the Most High G-d. (Genesis 14:18).

The G-d he knew was an “All High G0d ( Kel Elyon) ” , powerful, majestic but just beyond the touch of  mortal man. Malchizedek’s role then , was to be the conduit.

As a result Malchizedek himself is a little surprised when he meets Abraham who seems to have a very different relationship with the G-d of the universe                   

"And he(Malchizedek)  blessed him, and he said, "Blessed be Abram to the Most High G-d, Who possesses heaven and earth.( ibid 19) .

The G-d of Abraham is not only an” All High G-d” but also “One who possesses Heaven and Earth” . Not only a transcendent G-d but one who is very Imminent and available. A G-d you can speak to , cry to, argue with and feel connected to!

All this is implicit in the description of the choosing of the Kohen and the clothing that Hashem ordains for the Kohen Gadol ( High Priest).

"And you bring near to yourself your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel to serve Me [as kohanim]" (Exodus 28:1)

The man chosen to be the High Priest was not a semi deity and was not naturally or inherently "elevated" .Rather he  was to be one "from among the children of Israel " whose daily focus was to work and strive  to  "become elevated".

His prayers for repentance could not be a substitute for the prayers and repentance of the people that he represented. He was not meant to be the voice of the people of Israel. In his role he was meant to BE the people of Israel before Hashem .

The clothing he was to wear was to be a reminder and declaration of that specific purpose.

You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory.(ibid:2)


We first read of the stones that lay upon the shoulders of the High Priest:

    ” And thou shall take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth….. And thou shall put the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, to be stones of memorial for the children of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before HaShem upon his two shoulders for a memorial. ( Exodus 28:9-12)

We then read of the stones representing on the breastplate;

    “And the stones ( of the breastplate) shall be according to the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names; like the engravings of a signet, every one according to his name, they shall be for the twelve tribes. …..”And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goes in unto the holy place, for   a memorial before HaShem continually.( Exodus 28:21,29)

In addition, we read that the two were not to be separated from each other.

    And they shall fasten the Choshen ( Breastplate ) by its rings to the rings of the Ephod with a blue cord, so that it may be upon the band of the ephod, and the Choshen will not move off the Ephod.( ibid 28:28)

This commandment, of ” the Choshen will not move off the Ephod ” is one of the 365 prohibitions of the Torah . Their interconnectedness was  critical.

The two stones on the shoulders of the Ephod and the stones on the Breastplate both symbolized the twelve tribes. The obvious question arises as to why the repetition of the symbols. Did each stone grouping carry a different message? How and why were they connected?

We are told that the stones bearing the names of the tribes over the shoulders of the high Priest were to be  a “memorial”, that is to say, a remembrance. A Remembrance of what?

The Midrash tells us that “ Rav Nechemiah said; The Holy one Blessed Be he said to Moshe” appoint for Me a High Priest”. Said ( Moshe) Master of the World, from which tribe.. He said” from the tribe of Levy”. “With what do I anoint him?” He said “with the oil of anointing.” Etc. “ But his worship (avodah) is not worship and he will be guilty of sin if not for the names of the tribes engraved on his two shoulders.”  (Kohelet Rabbah 7-2)

A leader may be appointed and even be anointed but his position and role is only valid if he realizes that he is simply representing his people with their concerns and their needs.If he carries those concerns “upon his shoulder”.

The twelve stones “upon his heart” “wherein every individual stone was distinct and unique symbolized the necessity of the leader to be deeply connected to the care , concern and love for every individual of the collective of his people.These two could not be separated.

The physical needs and concerns of a people must be carried and supported “upon the shoulders” of true leadership. Their national destiny draws the individual parts into their destiny.  Yet the individual fears, and hopes of the people cannot be ignored and must be placed “upon  the heart “of every true leader.   The leader must remember that just as every individual stone was distinct, every member of the community shines with his own unique radiance while still being intertwined with all the rest.

The leadership of Israel and the leadership of the world, then, must reconnect with their Divine direction and relearn their purpose and role. Only then will leadership begin to fulfill the criterion of true leadership declared by Moshe himself;

Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying: Let HaShem , the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, designate a man over the community who will go out before them, who will come back before them, who will lead them out, who will bring them back; so that the community of HaShem will not be like a flock that has no shepherd.( Bamidbar/Numbers 27;15-17)

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther