Commentary for Tetzaveh

19 Feb

This week’s parshah is the second of two consecutive parshahs that deal almost exclusively with the instructions for the building and use of the Tabernacle. A rough division between the two can be made along the lines of what we are being instructed to construct. Last week’s parshah deals with the physical structures of the Tabernacle itself, the ark, the menorah, and all of their utensils, while this week’s parshah deals with the priestly vestments as well as some instructions on what to do when all of this stuff is done.

Despite the fact that it is dealing with exact instructions and precise measurements, last week’s parshah has an almost abstract feel to it. The concepts are simple, but the instructions are so precise that they seem to beg the age-old Jewish question of “why?” which the text does not answer. This week, while the instructions are similarly precise, the text does occasionally answer our unspoken question (such as in the case of the breastplate and the Ephod, whose purposes are explained in Ex. 28:29-30), helping the instructions to feel more grounded and understandable.

Another factor contributing to this week’s parshah feeling less abstract is the subject matter. We humans can easily understand the idea that the person with the fancy job needs fancy clothes. It is an idea we already understand from our human world. Obviously we can transfer this principle to help us understand why, for example, the implements used in service to God should be made of or coated in precious metals, but there is no similar concept that will help us understand why an omnipotent God wants us to make a fancy seven-branched candelabra.

That is not to say that there aren’t still parts of the priestly vestments that make us ask, “why does this have to be done this way?” Indeed, there is almost as much commentary on the priestly vestments as there is on the specifications of the Tabernacle, and there is certainly more on either of those two subjects than there is on the second part of this week’s parshah, which deals with the instructions for initiating the priests and the Tabernacle, despite the fact that the numbers and types of animals and items used in the initiation appear no less arbitrary than the materials, colors, and measurements of the Tabernacle or the priestly vestments. This is because when it comes to ritual, the symbolism is often obvious: we eat bitter herbs at the seder to remember how the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt. God rested on Shabbat, therefore we rest on Shabbat as well. When it comes to something like sacrifice, the symbolism is so clear that it really isn’t even “symbolism” anymore. We all understand the reasoning on an obvious, basic level: God wants us to show our gratefulness or atonement or devotion, so we sacrifice whatever fruits or animals God wants us to bring as a sacrifice. With ritual, we understand the basic concept on such a basic, almost physical level that we are completely willing to overlook the seeming arbitrariness of whatever the numbers happen to be.

When it comes to building things or designing special clothing, we are used to understanding why. We understand that a specific room must be certain dimensions because otherwise it wouldn’t be able to fit everything it needs to fit or that little bells will make your clothes fancier and more festive. But we don’t understand why the bells need to be shaped like pomegranates, or why a room would need a fancy candelabra that will be lit during the day when the desert sun is already providing enough light. Thus we are driven to ask questions, and until we can determine answers to those questions even the most basic, precise, detailed instructions will still feel abstract.

One of the commentators who does comment on the instructions for the initiation of the Tabernacle is VeChur LaZahav, who notes that the word “matzot” appears three times in Ex. 29:2. The first and third time it is spelled the usual way, but the second time it is spelled without the technically extraneous but usually present letter vav. VeChur LaZahav connects this to the seder, at which we use three matzot, the first and third of which stay whole while the middle is broken in half for the afikoman.

The seder is perhaps the very pinnacle of easy to understand ritual symbolism. We give a brief overview of the story, then explain why we are gathering to tell the story, then we tell the story (with added explanations), and then, one by one, we literally point to the important items on the table and ask “what is the significance of this?” before explaining it in as direct a manner as possible. This is because the purpose of the seder is to ensure the continuity of Jewish tradition not just through repeated motion but through teaching a thorough understanding of why the events being recounted are so important and why they need to be commemorated each year with special foods and a special ceremony, all done in a specific order.

The events recounted at the seder are not just the story of God redeeming the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, but also the story of the formation of Jewish peoplehood. This is the story of how a family of seventy grew into an entire nation. It is because of these experiences, culminating in God liberating us from bondage, that we emerge from Egypt as a people while the “mixed multitude” that came with us (Ex. 12:38) was merely that. The story we tell at the seder is the story Jewish peoplehood going from an abstract concept to a real solid fact. It is no longer just a common ancestry and experiences but a unique way of life that people engage in.

The initiation of the Tabernacle towards the end of this week’s parshah fulfills much the same function for Jewish religious practice that the Exodus did for Jewish peoplehood. It takes it from a set of ideas and principles into something that can be externally demonstrated. Once the Tabernacle is consecrated, we will have a central place that we can go to perform rituals so that we can show our gratefulness and devotion to God. Thus, by finishing with the instructions for the initiation of the Tabernacle and the daily duties the priests will perform in it, our parshah concludes the journey we began last week with the abstract command “They shall make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8)” and brought it into reality in the form of a place we can go to solidify our connection to God.

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