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Toward Shabbat: Tetzaveh

In this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, God outlines to Moshe the priestly vestments that Aaron will wear as the high priest of B’nai Yisrael. Aaron is to wear two blue stones, one on each shoulder. Additionally, he is to wear a further twelve stones, each inscribed with the name of a tribe of Israel, set into a gold breastplate over his heart. The Torah tells us that, dressed in these stones, Aaron and the high priests to come would be clothed in honor and glory. 

If we look closer at the Hebrew, we see that is it no accident that the word for honor, כָּבוֹד (kavod), shares the same root as the word heavy, כָּבֵד (kaved). Wearing all of these literal rocks on one’s body as part of an esteemed role, especially through several rounds of sacrifices, must have become pretty heavy after a while. But the heaviness of the stone was not meant to bring the high priest down—it was meant to teach us the weight of the moment. When the high priest offered up the sacrifices of the people, tended to those in need, or stood in the Holy of Holies, he was representing the entire people of Israel before God. He could have easily been carried away by the privilege and the power of proximity to God. So in moments of such elevation, he needed the weight of the stones to remain grounded and to remember his duty to the people.

As we move toward Purim next week, I am reminded of when Esther, after fasting for three days, prepared to approach King Ahashverosh on behalf of the Jewish people. She knew what was at stake. No one, not even the queen, was allowed to approach the king unless first called upon, and the penalty for committing such a crime was death. She did not need to don any kind of breastplate or stones for her to understand the gravity of the moment, but she did need to clothe herself in something else. Megillat Esther reads, “וַתִּלְבַּ֤שׁ אֶסְתֵּר֙ מַלְכ֔וּת וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֞ד בַּחֲצַ֤ר בֵּית־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙.” This line is often translated as “And Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace,” translating the word מַלְכוּת [malkhut] as “royal apparel.” But מַלְכוּת literally means “kingship.” How could a person put on “kingship”? Some commentators interpret this to mean that Esther gathered her courage and strength to ensure that she would carry out this brave act. 

The Talmud builds on this interpretation. Rabbi Elazar quotes Rabbi Haninah, saying that “This teaches you that she donned the Holy Spirit” (Megillah 15a). In Megillat Esther, a book that famously does not mention God, our rabbis write God into the story. Esther was not dressed in stones, but, as the narrative unfolds, we can feel the pressure that she was under to save her community. We can feel the כָּבֵד, the heaviness and intensity of her situation. It is in this very moment that she chooses to wrap herself in the spirit of God. 

Throughout our lives, there are times when, like the high priest, we can become so swept away in perceived virtue and authority that we lose sight of our responsibility to our community and our world. Often, we can be more concerned with maintaining our image or reputation than conceding we may have been wrong. Perhaps these are the moments in which we need the כָּבֵד of the proverbial breastplate and stones to remember that we are no greater than any other human being. But there are also times in our lives where, like in the Book of Esther, God feels so far away. These might be times when we lose a loved one suddenly, or when we try to face the enormity of war or the devastation of natural disasters, or when we confront the violence and turmoil in what is supposed to be the holy land of Israel and Palestine. It is during these moments that we are in need not of the heaviness of the priestly vestments, but of the supporting, uplifting embrace of the spirit of Holiness, ruah hakodesh, the spirit of God.

As we enter Shabbat and this holiday of joy, in our times of success and infallibility, may we remember our responsibility to our world and our humility. And in our times of heaviness, may we find comfort, strength, and courage wrapped around us in the spirit of God.