Parshat Tetzaveh: Yesterday and Tomorrow

Judaism includes two complimentary components: participation in eternity, as well as a sense of purpose amidst the happenstance.

Pine tree 311 (photo credit: Ophir Altstein/Hebrew University)
Pine tree 311
(photo credit: Ophir Altstein/Hebrew University)
“Now you bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him from among the Children of Israel... to minister to me. You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor” (Exodus 28:1,2)
If the Sanctuary/Temple is the forerunner of the synagogue, then the kohen/priest is the forerunner of the rabbi. A rabbi can serve as a prophet, as a kohen, or, at best, as a combination of the two.
What is the nature of the priestly and prophetic vocations, and the differences between them?
We begin with the Ark, the first of the sacred objects fashioned for the Sanctuary, which held the tablets on which were engraved the Ten Commandments. But why is the ark covered in gold rather than being made of pure gold (as are the arkcover, the cherubs and the menora)? A gold covering is less valuable than pure gold – and the kapporet is merely a protection for the Ark, and therefore less significant than the ark itself! So why is the sacred Ark made from gold-covered acacia wood?
I suggest that wood, which is derived from trees, symbolizes growth, development, fruits and future. Gold, by contrast is a precious metal which neither ages nor tarnishes, decays nor dissolves, possessing eternal value. Our Holy Torah must comprise both elements: eternity as well as creative advancement, timelessness as well as timeliness, the capacity to speak to the ages as well as to the age. The Holy Ark must be formed by wood encased in eternal gold.
This dialectic combination of wood and gold is expressed in an equally striking manner by the two main leaders of the Israelites during the biblical period, the prophet and the priest, Moses and Aaron. These two functionaries differed from each other in two ways. Firstly, the kohen derives his office from his ancestors, stretching all the way back to Aaron, elder bother of Moses. It is a matter of yihus, or ancestry. The prophet, on the other hand, could have been born into any family at all; his position is dictated exclusively by personal charisma and spiritual passion. Secondly, the kohen wears special garb – four unique garments for the regular kohen and eight for the kohen gadol (High Priest) – without which his divine service was disqualified. The navi (prophet) has no unique garb, his message and persona being the only significant aspect of his ministry.
These differences speak volumes about the functions of each of these leaders. Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, includes two crucial and complementary components for which humanity yearns: a sense of participation in eternity (which is so important in our fast-changing world), as well as a sense of purpose in a cosmos which too often seems governed by happenstance.
The kohen, minister of the Sanctuary and keeper of the traditions, is responsible for the continuity expressed by time-honored ceremonials performed generation after generation in our prayer services, celebrations and life-cycle events; hence the kohen receives the teachings from his father and bequeaths them to his son, expressing the external and eternal chain of Jewish being, which existed before either was born and will continue after both die. This continuity is symbolized by the unique external garb of the kohen, which was – and one day will again become – transmitted from generation to generation.
But remembrance of the past does not suffice without relevance to the present. Continuity requires commitment, structure yearns for significance, permanence cries out for passion. We dare not repeat rituals merely because they were performed by our forebears. Our religious rite must not be allowed to degenerate into empty habits. The structured psalms must sensitize our souls, the detailed laws must infuse us with freely given love, the emphasis on structure must allow for spiritual spontaneity. Loyalty to the past cannot blind us to the challenges of the future. It was the charismatic prophet who extracted purpose and pathos from permanence and precedent. It was he who made God’s passion and fire infuse the laws and traditions with meaning for the moment. The kohen is the eternal gold of the Sacred Ark, and the prophet is the evergrowing tree.
And the tree grows and develops organically, reaching upwards and outwards while remaining rooted in the eternal earth. As we face the challenges of women, their rights to learn, to lead and be freed from enslaving relationships in the 21st century, when we confront the “other,” the convert and the would-be convert from different cultures and varied ethnic backgrounds, we dare not forget the very roots of our Jewish beings: “And the Almighty created the human being in His image, in the image of God He created them, male and female created He them”; “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In the immortal words of Rav Kook: “May the old be renewed, and may the new be sanctified.”
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.