<I>Tetzaveh</I>: Carrying the Children of Israel

I would like to analyze the precise placement of the names of the tribes of Israel, which appear in two separate vestments of the High Priest.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
"And you shall make sacred vestments that are dignified and elegant for Aaron your brother" (Exodus 28:2)

European and American sartorial designers and clothing industrialists promulgate the slogan, "clothes make the individual". Judaism, which has always emphasized the inner personality rather than external appearances with the teaching "the Compassionate One desires one's heart", might very well provide a substitute slogan, "clothes fake the individual". Nevertheless, Judaism does understand that one's external garb can very often influence and even change one's inner feelings: new and sparkling clothing, for example, can make almost anyone feel much more optimistic and perky; whereas, old and unkempt garb can either signal or give testimony to a state of inner depression. For these reasons, we are commanded to wear special garb for Sabbaths and Festivals, modest dress is a mandatory expression of a modest lifestyle, and the kohen-priests display their unique leadership roles also by the uniqueness of their sacred vestments.

Since the Talmud teaches that the very ability of the kohen to perform the divine service is dependent upon his wearing the proper priestly garb - "When the (priestly garb) is upon them, the priesthood is upon them" (Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 17B), it seems apparent that the unique priestly apparel must teach volumes about the nature and quality of the kohen's religious leadership. To this end, I would like to analyze the precise placement of the names of the tribes of Israel, which appear in two separate vestments of the High Priest.

"They shall make the ephod out of gold thread, sky blue, dark red and crimson wool, together with twined linen, in a patterned brocade.... Take two sardmyx [crypto-crystalline quartz with alternating red and white bands] stones and engrave on them the names of Israel's sons; there shall be six names on one stone and the remaining six names on the second stone.... Place the two stones on the two shoulder pieces of the ephod as remembrance stones.... Aaron shall carry their names on his shoulders before G-d as a remembrance." (Exodus 28:6-12)

Hence, Aaron the High Priest carried about with him during his performance of the Temple service the names of the twelve tribes of his nation, and he carried them upon his shoulders.

Now, we have just seen that there was an open place for the breastplate - the breastplate of judgement - upon the ephod. The Bible describes this breastplate in exquisite detail:
Make a breastplate of Judgement. It shall be a patterned brocade.... Set it with four rows of mounted precious stones [emerald, topaz, sapphire, etc.].... The stones shall contain the names of the twelve sons of Israel, one for each of the twelve stones.... Make two gold rings for the breastplate, and attach them to the two upper corners of the ephod.... Aaron will carry the names of Israel's sons on the breastplate of Judgement over his heart when he enters the Sanctuary. It shall be a constant remembrance before G-d." (Exodus 28:15-29)
Once again, Aaron is carrying about the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, but this time they are on his heart. Somehow, this breastplate had the special capacity to help him in rendering important judicial decisions, such as whether or not to go to war. Hence, the Urim and Tumim - literally, lights and perfection, divinely inspired judgements - were imbedded within the names of these tribes placed upon his heart (Exodus 28:30).

Why two separate renderings of the names of the tribes, and why was one set of names on the High Priest's shoulders and the other over the High Priest's heart? And what are those mysterious Urim and Tumim?

I believe that the message at hand is a very profound one. The religious leader of Israel - the nation of the Book, the nation of the law, the nation with a mission to the world - must first and foremost render judicial decisions for his people, determine national policy, provide religious, ethical and moral direction. But at the same time, he must be painfully aware that he has to take responsibility for his decisions; that he must take responsibility for his nation. Thus, he must literally wear - carry and bear the burden - of every individual member of each of the twelve tribes; he must carry their names on his shoulders, he must take responsibility for the welfare and destiny of his people.

The Defense Minister of Israel, Sha'ul Mofaz, visited the family of Yosef Goodman, z.l., last week, son of the owners of the Efrat Pizzeria. Yosef was a beautiful, strong, idealistic and committed paratrooper who was tragically killed during a training accident. Mordecai, his father, asked the defense minister what was the most difficult aspect of his job. "Visiting bereaved families", he immediately replied. "I visit every one, because I feel very personally the responsibility for each loss...."

But the next question must be, what gives the High Priest the ability to render the difficult judgements he must render? They must be judgements of the mind, but they must also be judgements of the heart. He must realize that while he must certainly take into account the law, the traditions, the societal conditions, the national and world politics, he must also and even primarily be aware that he is affecting real people, individuals and families, by the ramifications of his decisions. Hence, the names of the tribes are on his heart and the decision must be not only of the mind, but also of the heart.

And finally, he must also take into account the will of the people when he makes decisions that will affect their lives. That's why the Urim and Tumim, the light of revelation revealed when a proper decision is rendered, has their source in the names of the tribes, in the decisions of the population of Israel. As the Talmud teaches us, "Even if the nation of Israel does not entirely consist of prophets, it does consist of children of prophets."


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