February 14th, 2016
There were many little bells on the hem of the kohen gadol’s robe. The Talmud says (Z’vachim 88b) that there were 72 bells, 36 on each side; another view says 36, 18 on each side.
The rabbis thought the bells were there so that everyone would know where the high priest was. From this we learn that one should never burst in anywhere. Just as the high priest’s movements were tracked when he entered the Holy of Holies, so one should not enter any premises, not even one’s own house, without announcing their arrival (Lev. Rabbah 21:8); P’sachim 102a).
I had a personal concern during my rabbinate when though I kept my office door open, I felt invaded when a certain person used to walk straight in without knocking or otherwise announcing her arrival. I often had confidential papers on my desk and though this particular congregant would not deliberately read such papers, I preferred to put things away before anyone entered.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe had an additional take on the rule about bells. He said that the world ought to hear and see what Judaism had something to say about a major issue. The Jewish idea should never be kept under wraps but be brought into the open and expressed with bell-like resonance.
February 14th, 2016
Depiction of the kohen gadol wearing his priestly garments
One of the priestly accoutrements was the ephod
, which Rashi says was like an apron. Others think it was a kind of tunic fastened by shoulder straps.
The crucial thing was that the ephod and the accompanying garments marked out the kohen gadol from the rest of the people. The high priest had to look different, as a symbol of his special role and status.
The histories of Jewish costume by Alfred Rubens and others show how special garb was always associated with different kinds of spiritual leadership.
These days there are fewer rabbis than before who believe in rabbinic robes – the Sephardi chief rabbis of Israel being an exception to the “mufti” tendency. Personally I see a purpose in rabbinic robes, even though most of my colleagues seem to disagree with me.
Whatever one’s view on that issue, it must be pointed out that there is a rabbinic rule that no-one holding an official position should dress in untidy, unclean, scruffy fashion. When people look at the leader, he or she must at all times exemplify the rules in Psalm 19 about God’s Torah looking pure and unsullied.
February 14th, 2016
Moses, by Rembrandt, 1659
Strangely, the name of Moses does not figure in this sidra
. No “The Lord spoke to Moses”. No “And Moses went, stood, said, made, did”.
As the Ba’al HaTurim points out, it’s the only section of the Torah after his birth that does not mention Moses by name, though there is a hint of his existence and task in the opening word, v’attah – “and you” (Ex. 27:20). As we move into Chapter 28 there are more instances of the same phenomenon.
Explanations include the co-incidence that this week happens to be Moses’s Yahrzeit, 7 Adar. The Ba’al HaTurim links the omission with Moses’s call to God, “If You won’t forgive the people’s sin, erase my name from Your Book” (Ex. 32:32).
Another place where we would expect Moses’s name but don’t get it is the Haggadah of Pesach.
There must be a deliberate policy behind these omissions. Possibly it is to prevent the rise of a Moses-cult. Even so – as with the beginning of B’reshit when the Torah says “The spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gen. 1:2) – the spirit of Moses hovers all over the Torah. One can’t understand or appreciate the Torah without the (sometimes unspelled-out) thought of the great leader.
Similarly, all of us lesser individuals know that who we are and what makes us can’t be understood or appreciated without our background and personal history. Even if it isn’t spelled out, its influence hovers over our deeds.
February 7th, 2016
Depiction of the Mishkan, Foster Bible Pictures, 1897
It is in this sidra
that the creation of the sanctuary is instituted. “They shall make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them”, is the crucial verse (Ex. 25:8). The commentators all seize on the word b’tocham
, “among them”. It is not so much the building in which God dwells but amongst the people who create it.
From this interpretation arises a question. Couldn’t God have dwelt amidst the people without an edifice? If it is amongst the people that He dwelt, why should anyone bother to gather the building materials and have an edifice at all?
The beginning of an answer is suggested by something Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz said in 1917 at the time of the Balfour Declaration: “A land focusses a people”.
Like the Land of Israel, the tabernacle focusses its people. It tells you what sort of people they are and where their priorities lie. It gives them a physical center. It brings them together in a united effort of creation.
Which leads us to a second question: Why couldn’t God have sent down the sanctuary ready-made and complete, without needing the human contribution towards the project?
Again an analogy: the rabbis say that when He made the world, the Almighty left tasks uncompleted for the human race to finish off, making Man the partner of the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the work of creation (Talmud Shabbat 10a). Only if and when human beings have a role to play do they fully value the achievement.
February 7th, 2016
In world culture, though not necessarily in Judaism, the cherubim (Ex. 25:20) have become a symbol of little saints. In Christianity, saints are venerated for their exceptional faith and deeds, and their relics have special status.
(Brian Moynahan points out in his book, “The Faith” that there was a time in Christian history when there were so many saints that the critics said that there was no evidence that some names on the list had even existed.)
But that’s not what the Jewish concept of k’doshim means. It means “holy people”. The Torah says, k’doshim tih’yu, “you shall be holy people” (Lev. 19:2).
When my cheder teacher trained us to say b’rachot with the words asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, “You made us holy with Your commandments”, my mind went blank. Years passed and I learnt some Torah. I discovered that the best ambition one can have is to lead a decent, honest, upright life, whatever one’s profession – a train driver, a teacher, a butcher, a baker or candlestick maker (even a rabbi!). I even read that Leo Baeck taught that the highest Jewish hero type is to be a reliable ba’al habayit.
When we are very young we fully expect to grow up normally and live forever. By now of course I know that I won’t live forever, but I can still grow in the categories of day-by-day holiness without being a saint.