Parashat Tetzaveh: A leader who carries the nation in his heart

One of the halachot (Jewish laws) regarding wearing the breastplate stipulates that the breastplate must be placed over the Kohen’s heart.

A homeless person in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A homeless person in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This week’s Torah portion – Tetzaveh – deals with the clothing worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, in the Temple.
These were valuable clothes meant to symbolize the Kohen’s respected status and the fact that he was chosen to serve the nation and perform its sacrifices.
One of the pieces of clothing worn by the kohen was the hoshen, the breastplate. This was a square piece of material embroidered with valuable stones that had the names of the Twelve Tribes etched on them. The sages of the Talmud (Tractate Yoma, page 73) teach us that the breastplate was not just a piece of decorative jewelry. It served a practical purpose for the entire nation.
When the nation faced a significant dilemma requiring a decision, they would present the problem to the Kohen Gadol and the answer would be given from God through the stones of the breastplate and the letters etched on them. The etched letters of the breastplate would shine, but not in any logical order that would signify a clear and definitive answer. The Kohen would have to combine the letters that shone and deduce the answer to the dilemma presented to him. This is possibly why this clothing was called urim ve’tumim, referring to the light.
The reason the answer was given in this unclear manner, leaving the kohen to decipher God’s message from the shining letters, is hinted at in our portion.
One of the halachot (Jewish laws) regarding wearing the breastplate stipulates that the breastplate must be placed over the Kohen’s heart.
“…And the breastplate will not move off the ephod. You shall place the urim and the tumim into the breastplate of judgment so that they will be over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Lord, and Aaron will carry the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart before the Lord at all times” (Exodus 28:28-30).
This unusual law stipulating where on the Kohen Gadol’s body this clothing must be positioned does not exist with any other item of his clothing. The other items must be worn by the kohen when working in the Temple, but if they move slightly out of place, there is no problem. Only with the breastplate do we find a specific directive that it must not move from its designated place.
This law teaches us about the essence of a true leader. Obviously a leader is obligated to lead his nation wisely, and make decisions after properly considering all the necessary information. But there is another side to this coin. A leader who makes decisions with cold logic only will ultimately end up disconnected from his nation. Analytical considerations do not suffice in determining serious moral issues. Room must be made for feelings as well.
Sometimes rational decisions lead us in a certain direction, but when we listen to the sounds emanating from our hearts, other considerations arise that we did not consider when weighing pros and cons.
Listening to these feelings adds a deeper dimension to decision-making.
A leader must not ignore the feelings of his public; he must make room for the “heart,” feeling his nation’s pain and distress, feeling what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, and thus attempting to alleviate their hardships. A leader whose decisions stem from awareness of his nation’s feelings is the one who will arrive at decisions that are beneficial for it.
Only the kohen wears the breastplate etched with the names of the tribes on his heart. He is the one who can combine the shining letters and create the relevant and best answer for the given situation. Only a leader who carries the nation in his heart and is sensitive to its troubles and needs can find the answer, because the decision is based on a combination of factors.
This concept is true for each and every one of us. It is only the person who carries the suffering of others in his heart, who is aware of another’s distress or pain, can help him and offer good advice.
■ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.