Parshat Tetzaveh: Stones with a human heart

When the High Priest served in the Temple, he did not do so as a private person of high stature, but rather as an emissary loyally representing the entire nation.

February 26, 2015 20:52
3 minute read.
Third Temple

A computer-generated rendition of the Third Temple. (photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)

After reading in the previous Torah portion about building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, this week’s portion – Parshat Tetzaveh – deals with the Kohens’ clothing. This clothing, made especially for the priests’ work in the Temple, was woven and sewn meticulously. The materials from which the clothing was made and the manner in which they were prepared were deliberate and of great significance.

Much has been written about the significance of the Kohens’ clothing but we will focus on a unique point that does not appear regarding the clothing itself but rather in regards to... stones.

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The clothing of the High Priest (the Kohen Gadol) included eight pieces of clothing, two of which were the choshen – the breastplate, and the efod – the vest. The choshen was a square piece of material placed on the High Priest’s chest. Twelve stones were sewn on it etched with the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The vest was a sort of apron with shoulder straps that enveloped the body of the High Priest. Two more stones were sewn on the straps of the efod, on the priest’s shoulders, etched with the names of the Twelve Tribes.

When the High Priest served in the Temple, he did not do so as a private person of high stature, but rather as an emissary loyally representing the entire nation. This status was expressed by having the names of the Twelve Tribes – the whole nation – etched on his clothing.

But why, then, was it necessary to represent the nation twice – on the High Priest’s shoulders as well as on his chest? These stones were not only to there as a representation of the nation in the Temple, but were a necessary condition for working in the Temple. This condition had two meanings, and therefore the nation was etched on his shoulders as well as on his heart.

When the Kohen approached his work at the Temple, he had to carry the nation in his heart and on his shoulders. Carrying the nation in his heart expressed the priest’s internalization of the needs of each person. If the Kohen would be detached from the nation, if he would not carry the nation on – and in – his heart, he would not be able to approach G-d. Preconditions of worshiping G-d are unity, peace, concern for the other, caring about his needs and loving him. Therefore, it is said about Aharon the Priest that he was one who was “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the created beings, and bringing them near to the Torah.”

But that was not enough. The nation had to be not only on the priest’s heart, but also on his shoulders. Carrying them on his shoulders expressed taking real responsibility for them. Carrying them on his shoulders meant taking on the burden of leading the nation with all its implications, believing wholeheartedly that as a leader, the priest must keep the nation and sustain it.

It is interesting to discern the difference between the stones on the heart and those on the shoulders. On the priest’s heart there were 12 small stones, each one of which was etched with the name of one of Israel’s Twelve Tribes. There were only two stones on his shoulders, each of which was etched with the names of six tribes.

Peace between men, the ability to contain another’s pain and internalize it into one’s heart, is an individual issue. Only by looking at the other as a meaningful individual can we feel deep and honest feelings about him. Therefore, 12 individual stones, expressing each individual alone, were placed on the priest’s heart. But he carried the burden and the responsibility not for the fate of each individual as much as for the fate of the nation as a whole. Therefore, it was more suitable to etch the names of the tribes together, on only two stones, placed on the shoulders of the High Priest.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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