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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Tetzaveh - Wearing Your People on Your Heart

Updated: Jul 12

Much like last week’s portion, Tetzaveh deals primarily with the operation of the mishkan, God’s dwelling place on Earth among the Israelites. Last week we read about the physical preparations of the structure and the tools to be used inside. This week, a great deal of the verses deal with the priestly robes that will adorn Aaron and his sons in their role as they serve God on behalf of the people in their work as priests. 

These uniforms are extremely intricate, meant to reflect the significance and importance that the priests will play in ancient Jewish practice and life. The priestly garments included a special fringed tunic, vest, and sash. There were even bells attached to the end of the garment so the priest would be heard even before he was seen. On top of that there are several additional adornments that each priest was meant to wear, including a specific headdress. 

Aaron, the first high priest, and all who followed in that role was expected to wear several more pieces. For example, to his headdress was added a frontlet, a small piece of gold, that hung down and laid upon his forehead at all times that, according to the Torah, allowed him to win acceptance of Israel’s sacrifices that they would bring before God. The most important piece of Aaron’s priestly robes was the choshen - the breastplate - that hung around his neck and rested on his vest. This breastplate was to be made of the same material as the priestly vest and with bright colors: gold, blue, purple, and crimson. Inside a golden frame on the breastplate, they arranged 12 stones, all different colors, in four rows of three. Each stone represented one tribe of Israel and was engraved with the corresponding tribe's name. 

The requirement and explanation for Aaron to wear this breastplate is written thusly: “Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before GOD at all times.” (Exodus 28:29) The symbolism is significant: the high priest must physically carry the names of the tribes, the entire People of Israel, on his garments each time he comes before God. While the work in the mishkan is in praise, thanksgiving, and glorifying God, the priest is commanded to remember that he is simultaneously serving his entire people, not only himself, his family, or his tribe. 

This idea that the priest must carry his people on his heart as he goes about his holy work in the mishkan is a beautiful one in my eyes. It speaks to a sense of connection, a sense of belonging that unites the Jewish people regardless of point of origin or standing with the greater tribe. As we go about holy work, worship, community building, tzedakah, whatever it may be, the Torah suggests that a central part of that work is to hold in our consciousness not just ourselves, but also our shared identity and belonging and Jews. 

We, the Jewish people, carry this idea with us to this day. Jews all over the world have been deeply, intimately affected by the events of October 7th and its aftermath. We carry one another on and in our hearts. The vast majority of Jews have experienced the events in Israel as if they happened to themselves, in their own communities. The sense of belonging to the same people, in some ways, has never been stronger. 

But there is also another group of Jews who have chosen a different response. There is a small but outspoken group of Jews, primarily young and from the United States, who have adopted a strongly anti-Zionist worldview as a response to October 7th, some of them even felt this way beforehand. For this group of Jews, Israel and Zionism are the core roots of the violence in the Middle East as it exists today. It represents the antithesis to all that these individuals see as morally correct: a white, settler-colonialist, racist, misogynistic, oppressor entity. Their opposition to Israel’s policies and, for many, to Israel’s existence also has imbued many of these young people with a great deal of sympathy for and identification with the Palestinian cause, many of them becoming activists in these circles. 

While I take great issue with their claims about Israel, that is not the issue that bothers me most. I also am not particularly bothered by their identification with the Palestinian national cause - empathy for others and recognition of injustices are laudable and, dare I say, Jewish values. What I cannot come to terms with is what seems to be an utter lack of empathy for, or identification with, their Jewish sisters and brothers. 

To be clear: there is much to criticize and despair from in the Jewish world. We, like all other peoples, contain multitudes of good and bad. In Israel specifically there are endless institutions to critique - the politics of an utterly corrupt and failing government, the institutionalized Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate that, empowered by the State, holds a near monopoly on Judaism, widespread corruption on a municipal level, inequity between female and male representation in nearly all sectors of the economy - I really could go on and on because I do this, I criticize my country and my people nearly every single day. You can look back in Israeli history and say, truthfully, there is violence and war and decisions that have adversely impacted thousands and thousands of people. 

But to conclude that because the Jewish state is flawed and built on a violent history - as is every other nation - I can reject my connection to half of the only 15 million Jews in the world and to all those who hold Israel and Israelis on their hearts as part of their family, is a radical and flawed idea. I cannot understand how closing your heart to the majority of the Jewish world, not being able to muster even the slightest bit of empathy for the massacre faced by Israel and the fear of Jewish communities around the world from the rise of anti-Jewish hatred, are meant to make this world a better place for Jews, Arabs, for anyone really. 

The image of the chosen, Aaron’s breastplate, reminds of how important it is to carry our people on our hearts. It also recognizes how heavy this mission is - a breastplate of gold and gems would have weighed heavily on the priest. Simultaneously, the choshen recognizes the differences between us, each tribe represented by a different color with a space in between. 

We have always been a stubborn people. Our tradition is deeply rooted in and based on disagreement. Even though we disagreed, often passionately with one another, there has always existed a feeling of belonging between us. We might look different, pray differently, eat different foods but we all belonged to Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, and when our sisters and brothers around the world suffered, we suffered with them.  

My fear is that these feelings of Peoplehood, caring, and empathy for one another are fraying to the point where they may be beyond repair. But we are such a small tribe, only 15 million of us around the world. And there are so many who do not wish us well. Even when the distances seem overwhelming, even when the gaps between us seem so wide - we must remember that we were all forged together on the choshen so many years ago and know that, only together, will we be strong enough to survive the challenges we face.

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