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Torah Reflections

Tetzaveh: Service from the Heart

This week’s Torah reading, Tetzaveh/Command, provides instructions for making the high priest’s ritual garments. Aaron and all subsequent high priests were commanded to wear these vestments whenever they entered the Tent of Meeting or approached the altar. The priestly garb included a woven breastplate (khoshen) set with precious stones inscribed with names of the twelve Israelite tribes.  Exodus 28:29 reveals the purpose of the khoshen:

In this way, Aaron is to bear the names of the Children of Israel on the khoshen of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy [place], as a remembrance, before the presence of YHVH at all times.

The divine service of the priests was fraught with danger, and the ritual garments were believed to have protective power:

They are to be upon Aaron and upon his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to serve in the Holy [place], so that they do not incur punishment and die. It shall be a law for all time for him and for his descendants after him. (28:43)

Perhaps I’m projecting, but it seems to me that the High Priest might have been just a little bit worried about his own well-being. As a result, his attention may have been focused on the myriad details of the rituals he was to perform rather than the reason for them. So it makes sense to me that his garb should include physical reminders of those on whose behalf he performed his duties.

Tetzaveh’s teachings are not just for priests…or rabbis

Prayers have long since replaced sacrifice, and priestly garb is no longer worn. But Tetzaveh’s instruction to remember whom we serve remains. On the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah  and Yom Kippur, the shaliakh tzibbur (literally, “the community’s messenger; typically the cantor, rabbi or other prayer leader) chants a powerful prayer called Hineni. The prayer opens with these words: Here I am, lacking in merit, trembling in your Presence, standing before you on behalf of your people…

When I stand before a congregation on these holiest of days, this prayer serves as a khoshen for me. It reminds me that the myriad details of the High Holiday rituals are empty unless I remember to carry the holy congregation that I am blessed to serve upon my heart. It’s not about getting the details right, or giving good sermons or even holding the space for worship. All of those things are important, but they put the emphasis on me and on my role. But the Days of Awe are not about me. When I remember this, I am empowered to serve as a shaliakh tzibbur; when I forget, I am nothing more than a performer.

Like most of us, I tend to see this dynamic in action when the stakes are high. But I’ve discovered that it’s almost always operating just below the surface of conscious awareness. I can write with the intent to impress you or with the intent to serve you. I can visit a sick friend with the intention of fulfilling a social obligation or making a good impression, or I can show up in service to comfort and healing.

I am blessed to own some amazing jewelry created by my friend Sue Stockman. Her  work is deeply spiritual, and some of my favorites bear names like Steps along the Path, Little Altars, and She’s a Rock. I’ve been wondering what kind of khoshen Sue might create for me, and what names might be inscribed on it. Because I know one thing for sure: the only way for me to enter into holy space and serve the sacred in truth is when I carry those names upon my heart.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed to remember those whom you serve. May you carry their names with you always. And may you be channel for the sacred in all you do.

Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.

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