Purim, Take Two
Conservatism and commentaries

Thoughts on Tetzaveh

This week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is the kind of parashah I find most challenging: a detailed description of the garb of the High Priest. I like to think that a skilled commentator can find contemporary relevance in any passage of Torah, but this one tests my limits pretty sorely.

Rabbi Melissa Crespy's most recent commentary on Tetzaveh begins by acknowledging that very challenge. She cites a midrash that expands on a homonym for one word of the portion, an excellent example of Rabbinic ingenuity. In an earlier commentary on the same portion, she mused about rabbis, priests, and ordinary people (Those of you whose Spanish is stronger than mine may enjoy reading that commentary in Spanish.)

That she finds two such different foci in the parasha isn't really surprising, given the range of what people have found in Tetzaveh over time. Rabbi Jonathan Kraus draws on Nehama Leibowitz in asserting that the detailed instructions in Tetzaveh exist for our sake, and not for God's. Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz's commentary goes in yet another direction, focusing on two rabbinic interpretations of why Moses isn't in the portion and what that might mean.

I like the midrashim these folks offer, though part of me wonders, "Why put so much effort into making the text speak to us?" The rabbinic tradition came into being once the Temple had been destroyed: what were they (and, by extension, what are we) to make of these passages describing the ins and outs of sacrificial ritual we can no longer (and, by now, would no longer want to) recreate?

The best answer I can come up with is, this is what Jews do. We take our central text, and we take our belief that the text has enduring relevance, and we make those things work together. We assume that meaning can be found (or made) through study of the text. We assume that there's value in Torah study, even if the week's portion doesn't seem (on the surface) relevant to our contemporary lives.

At heart we're idealists. Even when Torah is cryptic, we insist on gleaning something there. It's easy to find meaning in You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt; harder to find meaning in descriptions of what color thread should be stitched into the vestments of the High Priest. And yet we persist in combing through the words for something to hold on to.

Challenging as I find this week's parashah, I'm moved by our insistence that these words are important. We've spent the last few thousand years engaging with this text. We've committed ourselves to it, and the relationship stands. Even when the text rambles about embroidery and breastplates.

That's my answer. What's yours?