Tetzaveh: Caring to Know, Knowing to Care

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” These words of Theodor Roosevelt are so obvious, yet so elusive. We often hear from friends and experts, or perhaps share our own knowledge, failing to pass the test of sympathy. This lesson is also hidden between the wrinkles of the kohen’s clothing. 

The Torah teaches us about the uniquely distinct items the High Priest— the Kohen Gadol— was to wear: the choshen. Most known among the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, the Choshen is the breastplate with the twelve gems, carrying the names of the twelve tribes of Israel as described in the Torah:

“You shall make a choshen of judgment, the work of a master weaver. You shall make it like the work of the ephod; of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen shall you make it. And the stones shall be for the names of the sons of Israel twelve, corresponding to their names; [similar to] the engravings of a seal, every one according to his name shall they be, for the twelve tribes…the stones shall be for the names of the sons of Israel twelve, corresponding to their names; [similar to] the engravings of a seal, every one according to his name shall they be, for the twelve tribes.” (Exodus, chapter 28)

Unlike so many other aspects of the Mishkan, the Torah attaches a mission to the Choshen: judgment. The Choshen is a tool most associated with judgment [1]. And yet the Torah seems to assign to it another role, a unique mission statement: 

“Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the choshen of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times. You shall place the Urim and the Tummim into the choshen of judgment so that they will be over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord, and Aaron will carry the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart before the Lord at all times.”

So which is it? Is the Choshen a tool of judgment, or is it a vessel of compassion reminding God—and the High Priest—to look compassionately and each and every one of the twelve tribes of Israel? Is the Choshen a manifestation of strict judgment or of compassionate mercy? 

The answer for this can be found in a story that took place in a bright desert just a few years before the construction of the Tabernacle. The Talmud (tractate Shabbat 139a) shares the story and its connection to the Choshen:

“Rabbi Mallai taught that as reward for Aaron’s lack of jealousy at seeing his brother Moses rise to greatness, as it is stated: “And he will see you and be glad in his heart,” he merited to become the High Priest, and for the breastplate of judgment to rest on his heart.”

As Aaron greets Moses, he recognizes how his younger brother will be the leader of the Jewish people, the redeemer who will lead them out of slavery. Instead of feeling jealous, Aaron rejoices in his brother’s success. It is this kind of heart that can carry the names of the Jews on its chest. Only a heart that is happy for others can carry the judgment for those same people. 

There is a word in Yiddish that has no translation in any other language, so much so that in Hebrew, you say it as it is; the word is “to fargin“. According to one source the meaning of this word is: “to be glad for another person’s success or happiness.” It is a verb. A sentiment you need to enact to rejoice in the success of others. To fargin is the diametrical opposite of the German ‘schadenfreude,’ translated as the “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” Aaron fargined Moses and was, in turn, rewarded with becoming the High Priest and carrying the names of the Jewish people on his chest. 

The lesson? There is no judgment with no love. 

Only a heart filled with love, compassion, and fargining for others can be in a position to judge others. Only a heart like Aaron’s, always seeing the good in others and rooting for them, can be a source of authoritative decisions determining the national future of the Jewish people. Why? Because nobody cares what you think until they know how much you care. 

This explains a mindboggling connection— pun intended— in this week’s Parsha. 

In addition to the mitzvah of making the choshen, the Torah says:

“and they shall make the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen, the work of a master weaver… And you shall take two Shoham stones and engrave upon them the names of the sons of Israel. Six of their names on one stone and the names of the remaining six on the second stone, according to their births. [Similar to] the work of an engraver of gems, [similar to] the engravings of a seal, you shall engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel; you shall make them enclosed in gold settings. And you shall put the two stones upon the shoulder straps of the ephod as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel, and Aaron shall carry their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders as a remembrance.”

So similar are the choshen and the ephod. Both carry precious stones; both carry the names of Israel. The difference? The ephod has six names per stone, while the choshen has one. The ephod rests on the High Priest’s shoulders, while the choshen rests on his chest. The Torah then tells us something that becomes one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments we have to this day:

“And they shall fasten the choshen by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a blue cord, so that it may be upon the band of the ephod, and the choshen will not move off the ephod.”

If a Kohen, or anyone for that matter, disconnects the choshen from the ephod, they are in violation of this commandment. Why the connection between the choshen and the ephod?

An idea often shared on this subject explains it all. The choshen is on the kohen’s heart, while the ephod is on his shoulders. It is one thing to love and not judge while taking no responsibility. In fact, that is very easy. It takes a much higher level to not judge while being willing to carry their weight on your shoulders. Authentic leadership is the ability to love others, fargin them, but also take them on your shoulders. This explains why the choshen and the ephod must always be connected. Disconnecting judgment from taking responsibility for them takes away all meaning. We must be able to be there for others as well. 

The lesson of the choshen is that we need to care more. If we want to share something that we know, others must know that we care. The connection between the choshen and the ephod confounds that lesson and tells us that for sympathy to indeed show, we must also be able to take responsibility for others. 

Shabbat Shalom! 

This Dvar Torah is dedicated in loving memory of Mrs. Polly Etkind-Hochberg OBM who always knew how to care, and always cared to know.

  [1] See the book of Numbers (chapter 28):” He shall stand before Eleazar the kohen and seek [counsel from] him through the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. By his word they shall go, and by his word they shall come; he and all Israel with him, and the entire congregation.”



About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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