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Naomi Graetz

Parshat Tetzaveh and a Special Passover Gift

This Saturday is Shabbat Hagadol, the special shabbat before Passover. According to my calendar it is also the day of Miriam’s death, i.e., her Yahrzeit. In my second blog (this one is the 42nd  one, but who except me is counting) I wrote how I had been writing about Miriam for more than twenty years and had identified with her in different ways, depending on who (and where) I was at the time. I referred to the end of the parsha of be-ha-alotcha, where we read about Miriam and Aaron’s speaking up against Moses about the Cushite woman. But she is not the only one who might have a “beef” (pun intended) against Moses.

THE EMPEROR (HIGH PRIEST) WEARS NO CLOTHES

In this week’s parsha tetzaveh we read all about Moses’s clearly superior relationship to Aaron as he engages with Aaron’s investiture to the high priesthood. God tells Moses what to do; then Moses does to Aaron and his sons what God has told him to do. And then at the end, the passage concludes that Moses has done what God has told him to do.  But what is done to Aaron and his sons by Moses, can be seen as a clear power play. Moses is the conduit of the holy power. He washes Aaron and his sons, anoints them with oil, dresses them and then in a very symbolic way sprinkles holy blood on their bodies (ear, hands etc.)  He is the father/mother figure. He, in his capacity as God’s chosen, invests Aaron with his (God’s) power. So although the rest of the Levi family will no longer be priests, and only Aaron’s family will have that privilege, at this liminal point in history, the show is all Moses’s as God’s representative. He is the actor and Aaron is acted upon.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Take Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Moses did as YHWH commanded him. And when the community was assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, Moses said to the community, “This is what YHWH has commanded to be done.” Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. He put the breast piece on him, and put into the breast piece the Urim and Thummim. And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem-as YHWH had commanded Moses. Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it, thus consecrating them. He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, anointing the altar, all its utensils, and the laver with its stand, to consecrate them. He poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him. Moses then brought Aaron’s sons forward, clothed them in tunics, girded them with sashes, and wound turbans upon them, as YHWH had commanded Moses. He led forward the bull of sin offering. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the bull of sin offering, and it was slaughtered. … Moses brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar. …  And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments. Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments. Moses said to Aaron and his sons: …You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed. For your ordination will require seven days. … You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, day and night for seven days, keeping YHWH’s charge-that you may not die-for so I have been commanded. And Aaron and his sons did all the things that YHWH had commanded through Moses (Leviticus 8:1-36).

As I was reading this, I thought to myself, if I were Moses’s brother, how would I feel about all this. Grateful? Respectful? Resentful? Embarrassed? Infantilized? Perhaps the following reflections in the form of an internal monologue can offer us insight into Aaron’s perspective:

I’m standing here naked outside in front of the whole community, with my hands trying to hide my private parts.  In order for me and my sons to take on the roles of high priests, we have to be humiliated in public by my younger brother, who washes me like a baby—while everyone watches. Is this a baptism? Is he getting his revenge for being put into the waters as a babe? And my four sons, they are shivering too, and they have to hang around naked even longer, while waiting to be dressed by Moses. He sure is taking his time, making sure every knot is tied properly. It must be killing them, putting on an air of dignity in this most embarrassing event in our lives. I wonder what our sister Miriam thinks about all this. Is she relieved to be excluded so publicly from the ritual.  Is she watching? I bet she is happy not be be paraded naked in front of her friends and family. How does she feel about this very masculinization of the religion—with all of its shedding of blood and hierarchy, in which women are not allowed to partake? Does she also resent seeing our baby brother at the center of it all, having been present at his birth? Is she thinking back to her own glory in the past, when she sang her song, the Song of the Reed Sea? And this public pagan ritual—is it really necessary. Why embarrass us so publicly? Couldn’t we just have a private investiture? My butt is freezing! Let’s get this over with. 

A PASSOVER TRIPTYCH

One can easily understand the siblings anger and resentment at Moses’s grandstanding. In 1999 I wrote a poem about Miriam’s resentment of her fate as Moses’s sister.

MIRIAM THE BITTER  “MAROR”

She stands apart.

One of three.

Separate, different,

Sister to a priest.

Midwife (they say)

To the Leader.

The waters broke.

With song and delicacy

She pulled HIM out

And sweet water

From hard rocks.

As a child I knew

Blood, fear

Endless crying–

He was in my power.

I gave my all.

My reward:

HE has turned God against me,

Whiteness of skin,

Shielded from sun and friends

With no one to listen

To my prophecy.

And then in 2001, I added two more poems to the first one to form a Triptych which I used for our Passover family Seders and which was later included in The Women’s Seder Sourcebook (2003) with explanations. I depicted Moses the Leader as Matzah, and Aaron the Priest as Pesach. The triptych is freely available here. If you decide to use this to enhance your Seder, it should be inserted when you get to the part about Rabban Gamliel saying:

“Whoever has not spoken of the following three matters on Passover has not fulfilled the obligation of the holiday. They are Pesach, Matza and Maror.”

As you will see, I have reversed the order, putting Miriam first.

MIRIAM’S YAHRZEIT 

You might want to light a yahrzeit candle for Miriam, the “rebellious” one, who was the oldest of her siblings, who died and was buried at Kadesh (Numbers 20:1), according to one tradition on the 10th of Nissan (here).  Since the mid-eighties many people have included Miriam’s cup (filled with water, not wine) on the table, next to Elijah’s cup. This is because of the well that accompanied the people during their forty years in the desert. And when she died, the well dried up and the people complained to Moses (Numbers 20: 2-6).

I wish you all a peaceful Shabbat and a meaningful Seder. Hopefully, you, your family (parents, siblings, children) and friends will not have too many arguments at the dinner table and I hope you can use my “gift” to enrich your Seder.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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