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Fox Tales: Parashat Tzav

The reading this week enumerates six different varieties of animal sacrifices, a detailed description of the priests’ vestments, and the ceremony consecrating Aharon and his sons. Perhaps lost in all the cultic terminology is an example of how the rhythm of biblical texts may serve to highlight the drama of what is happening. Case in point: two passages where Moshe prepares the priests for their big day (Lev. 8:6-9, 13):

  1. Moshe brought near Aharon and his sons / and washed them with water; / he put on him the robe, / he girded him with the sash, / he clothed him in the tunic, / he put on him the efod-vest, / he girded him with the designed-band of the efod-vest, and invested him in it, / he placed on him the Breastpiece, / he put in the Breastpiece the Urim and the Tummim, / he placed the turban on his head, / and he placed on the turban, in front of his face, the plate of gold, the sacred-diadem of holiness, / as YHWH had commanded Moshe…
  2. Then Moshe brought near the sons of Aharon; / he clothed them in tunics, / he girded them with sash[es], / and he wound them caps, / as YHWH had commanded Moshe.

These passages foster a sense of hurtling toward something momentous. They remind me, ironically, of the scene in 1956’s The Ten Commandments, where Yul Bryner (Pharaoh) has his armor girded on, piece by piece, in preparation for battle. In our text, however, Moshe’s actions are followed by the mysterious ceremony of “filling the hand”—the mandating—of the priests.

As it turns out, the book of Exodus had ended with a similar rhythmic flourish. The passage in Ex. 40:18-9 utilizes the same rapid pace:

Moshe erected the Dwelling: / he put up its sockets, / he placed its boards, / he put up its bars, / he erected its columns, / he spread out the tent over the Dwelling, / he placed the cover of the tent over it, above, / as YHWH had commanded Moshe.

Here, as the Dwelling nears completion, as does the entire book, there is a sensation akin to the completion of a jigsaw puzzle or of a work of architecture. As I noted on these pages a few weeks ago, it is as if we are watching a fast-forwarded video of the process and anticipating the climax of the action. And crowning it all, in numerous passages that surround the excerpts from both books, is the refrain indicating the stamp of divine approval: “As YHWH had commanded Moshe.” Everything thus falls into place, in readiness for the big moment, when the divine presence will descend upon the “Dwelling” (Tabernacle), assuring the Israelite camp of protection as it travels through the wilderness.

In a way, such detailed and rhythmic actions find a parallel in the week-long preparations for Passover, which will be here in a few weeks. These encompass systematic activities, from shopping to cleaning to turning over the kitchen, to cooking, and finally, the “Order” that is the Seder itself. But in addition, this year, the third in a row under the shadow of the coronavirus, disorder seems to reign around the world, with a tragic war unfolding before our eyes. The completion of a sacred structure in the Bible contrasts poignantly with the demolition of buildings and lives in Ukraine. In the end, our texts, and the events of today, point to the urgent mandate that community building, and the shouldering of our responsibilities to one another as human beings, must prevail despite everything.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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