Parashat Tetzaveh: Carrying the nation

The fashion industry promulgates the slogan "clothes make the man." Judaism, which has always emphasized the inner personality, might provide a substitute: "Clothes fake the man."

"And you shall make sacred vestments that are dignified and elegant for Aaron your brother" (Exodus 28:2). The fashion industry promulgates the slogan "clothes make the man." Judaism, which has always emphasized the inner personality, might provide a substitute: "Clothes fake the man." For us, modest dress is a mandatory expression of a modest lifestyle. Nevertheless, Judaism does understand that one's garb can influence and even change one's inner feelings. New clothes, for example, can make almost anyone feel more optimistic, whereas old or unkempt garb can signal a depression. For these reasons we are commanded to wear special garb for Sabbaths and festivals. With this in mind, we can understand the importance of the priests' sacred vestments. Since the Talmud teaches that the ability of a priest to perform the divine service depends on the proper garb - "When the [priestly garb] is upon them, the priesthood is upon them" (B.T. Zevahim 17B) - it seems apparent that the apparel teaches volumes about the nature and quality of the religious leadership. To this end, I would like to analyze the placement of the names of Israel's 12 tribes, which appear on two separate garments of the high priest. "They shall make the ephod [a kind of vest, described by Josephus (Antiquities 3:7:5) as having sleeves and shoulder straps, with an opening in the center for the breastplate] out of gold thread, sky blue, dark red and crimson wool, together with twined linen, in a patterned brocade... Take two onyx stones [crypto-crystalline quartz with alternating red and white bands] and engrave on them the names of Israel's sons; 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 God as a remembrance" (Exodus 28:6-12). Hence, during his performance of the Temple service, the high priest carried the names of the 12 tribes on his shoulders. Now we have just seen that there was an open place for the breastplate on the ephod. The Bible describes this breastplate in exquisite detail: "Make a Breastplate of Judgment. 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 12 sons of Israel, one for each of the 12 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 Judgment over his heart when he enters the Sanctuary. It shall be a constant remembrance before God" (Exodus 28:15-29). Once again, we find Aaron carrying the names of the 12 tribes, but this time on his heart. Somehow this breastplate was to help him render important judicial and national decisions, such as whether or not to go to war. Hence the urim and tumim - literally "lights" and "perfections," divinely inspired judgments - were imbedded within the names upon his heart (Exodus 28:30). Why two separate renderings of the tribes' names, and why one set on the high priest's shoulders and the other over his heart? And what are those mysterious urim and tumim? I believe that the message at hand is a profound one. The religious leaders of Israel - the nation of the Book, the nation of the Law, the nation with a mission to the world - must first render judicial decisions for their own people, determine national policy, provide religious, ethical and moral direction. But at the same time, they must be painfully aware that they bear responsibility for their decisions and their consequences. Thus the high priest must literally bear the burden of every member of the 12 tribes; he must carry their names on his shoulders. Last year, when Shaul Mofaz was still defense minister, he visited the family of Yosef Goodman in Efrat. Yosef was a handsome, idealistic and committed paratrooper who died during a training accident. Actually, Yosef demonstrated superhuman heroism. His parachute had become intertwined with that of his commander, and in a split-second decision Yosef cut his chute loose, plummeting to certain death but saving the life of the officer. Mordechai, Yosef's father and a very close friend, 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 responsible for each loss..." What gives the high priest the ability to render the difficult judgments he must issue? Our portion teaches that they must be judgments of the mind, but must also be judgments of the heart. He must remember that while he must take the law into account, as well as the traditions, societal conditions, national and world politics; he must first be aware that he is affecting real people. Hence, the names of the tribes are on his heart. And finally, he must consider the will of the people when he makes decisions which will affect their lives. That's why the urim and tumim, the light of revelation made manifest when a proper decision was rendered, had their source in the names of the tribes, and the decisions of the population of Israel. As the Talmud teaches: "Even if the nation of Israel does not entirely consist of prophets, it does consist of children of prophets." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.