Walking and falling at the same time
This week's portion: high priest

Holy garments (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

Parashat Tetzaveh continues our immersion in Judaism 1.0. Last week we waded through elaborate description of how to stitch the threefold tent for the portable mishkan; this week we're drenched in details of the priestly garments for Aaron and his sons.

The minutiae of this week's portion may seen distant from our post-sacrificial liturgical lives. But that casual shrug -- "this bears no resemblance to the Judaism I know and love; this is foreign to me" -- is facile. Anyone who wears a tallit for prayer knows what difference a piece of cloth can make.

Praying bare-shouldered and praying wrapped in my tallit feel different. At the most recent yarzheit of my grandfather Isaac (of blessed memory) I davvened wrapped in his tallit -- old blue and white silk, instead of my rectangle of cream-colored hand-loomed cloth -- and that felt different still.

Even though I believe that God enfolds me at all times, and that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart matter more than what kind of clothes or shoes I wear to shul, there's something about that particular piece of cloth that changes the way I feel when I pray.

The tallit isn't an essential rung on the ladder to God -- in some fundamental sense there's no ladder, really; God's always right here -- but often it feels like it is. The deepest part of me may be in a constant state of devekut (cleaving-to-God), but the worldly parts of me forget that again and again. Taking my tallit from its case, respectfully kissing the yoke of the collar, wrapping it briefly around me so that the world is blocked out, settling it around my shoulders -- that act centers me. It helps prepare me for prayer. And sometimes it helps me feel like my prayers are reaching farther toward God.

Without my tallit, I'm more easily distracted in prayer. And if the little sounds and sights of my shul can tug my attention away from the Holy Blessed One, how much more so might the bellowing of yearlings or the thick odor of incense have distracted Aaron? Wearing something special, a consecrated garment or family heirloom tallit, doesn't guarantee perfect kavvanah (focus/mindfulness) -- but it's a good step in that direction. We're human; we're flawed; we forget. Aaron's fancy vestments, so lovingly described in this week's portion, reminded him of what mattered -- just as our tallesim remind us, today.

This week's Torah portion feels like a continuation of last week's portion. The same words recur: crimson, blue, purple. Linen. Gold. Indeed, Aaron's holy vestments are a visual echo of the holy space the Israelites have just been commanded to build. But the designs are different. Where the innermost layer of the Mishkan tent featured a woven design of two cherubim, we're not told what designwork appears on Aaron's ephod. What we are told is that Aaron's vestments feature stones inscribed with the names of the Israelite peoples. What does the difference tell us?

In the holy place the Israelites are to build, the central image is of the I-Thou relationship. In the way the cherubim face each other always, we learn something about the essential posture required for connecting with God.

But when it comes to the High Priest -- the one, according to the old system, uniquely qualified to connect with God on the people's behalf -- the imagery serves to remind him (and, by extension, us) of the importance of community. Aaron may seek the I-Thou relationship the cherubim model, but he's never only speaking for himself. He wears the names of the Israelite tribes in order that he might never forget for whom he serves.

Today we prize autonomy, in our religious lives as in our secular ones. We may each feel responsible for forging our own connection with God, and there's a lot to be said for that kind of spiritual empowerment. But what if we made a conscious effort to think of our tallitot as analogues to Aaron's holy garments? What if we imagined the names of every family in the greater Jewish community woven into the fabric of our prayer shawls? How would that change the way we think about communal worship and individual prayer -- and about our responsibility to pray not only for ourselves, but for the larger family of which we are part?