J.J Gross

Tetzaveh: The Mishkan was meant to be itinerant. Plus the importance of artists

The kohen is no Catholic priest… and our hearts take priority over our brains

ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם
and they will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.
(Parshat Terumah / Shemot 25:8)

וקדשתי את אהל המועד ואת המזבח ואת אהרן ואת בניו אקדש לכהן לי. ושכנתי בתןך בני ישראל והיתי להם לאלהים|
… and I will sanctify Aharon and his sons to minister to me. And I will dwell among the Children of Israel and will be to them their G-d.
(Parshat Tetzaveh / Shemot 29:44-45.(

What is the role of the kohen, the Israelite priest? Most people never ask this question.  Is a kohen God’s representative on earth? His interlocutor who has an infallible license to act and make decisions in the Almighty’s name?

Apparently many of us presume this very Roman Catholic idea of the priestly role. Although mere confession of sin to a kohen will not yield absolution, nevertheless we seem to attribute certain powers to a kohen, and assume, that like priests of other faiths, a kohen is here to minister to the people in God’s name.

Parshat Tezaveh is not one of the more narratively scintillating parshiot. It begins with the call for oil with which to light the menorah, and then takes us through God’s very specific and detailed requirements for the priestly vestments, and the ritual offerings that would inaugurate the Mishkan.

Nevertheless there are a number of rather startling and theologically revolutionary ideas that are manifest in this Parsha.

The first is by way of God dictating how He wishes to be served – the style of the priestly garments, the pageantry, the menu of the offerings and sacrifices, and the minutest details of their preparation.

This comes in the wake of similar dictation by God regarding the architecture, design and materials for the Mishkan and its vessels.

We take this sort of dictation by God for granted. Yet, in fact, it is counterintuitive.  One would naturally assume that it is for the people to show their adoration of God by themselves choosing a fitting dwelling for Him and by voluntarily determining the appropriate way to manifest their adoration and worship.  After all, we do not tell others what gifts to bring us (okay some people are tactless enough to do so) which is all the more why a gift or offering or tribute is a true reflection of the love, awe, fear, or gratitude of the giver.

And yet, God does precisely the opposite. Indeed, God tells us in minutest detail what He desires, like an American bride registering for her dinner plates, silverware, food processor and linens at an expensive department store. And we augment or diminish from these instructions at our own peril.

Perhaps we can better understand this revolutionary phenomenon once we better understand the precise role of the Kohen.

But even before we focus on the kohen, it is worth noting the utter uniqueness of the very idea of a dwelling place for God on earth.  In no other monotheistic religion is there the belief that G-d actually resides in any specific church, temple of mosque. The spirit of their gods may be manifest, and their sanctuaries may attain a degree of holiness by virtue of their function as gathering places for worship. Nevertheless there is no claim that their god actually resides in, say, St. Peter’s or in the Qabba of Mecca. Their gods reside in heaven alone.

And on this note I wish to express my contention that the Mishkan was never meant to be located in a fixed venue.  ושכנתי בתוכם literally means  “I shall dwell among them”.

Even – perhaps especially – after the Bnei Israel were settled in Eretz Israel, the Mishkan was supposed to travel from tribe to tribe, from community to community. This way ever Jew would have a regular access to the company of God by way of the rituals involved with the Mishkan, and the services of kohanim who were meant to be itinerant. Hence kohanim did not receive any land in Eretz Israel.

I would argue, furthermore, that the single most divisive and destructive element of life in Eretz Israel was the construction of the Beit Hamikdash.

Unlike the Mishkan which was literally designed by God, the design of the Beit Hamikdash was driven pomp and pride of men. It gave primacy to royal aristocrats who built it it in their own backyard, rather than sharing it with the entire People as only the Mishkan could.

Hence it would come as no surprise if the kohanim would devolve from humble servants of God  into self-serving ringmasters of a ceremonial circus.

The Mishkan was God’s humble dwelling among His people. By contrast, the Beit Hamikdash would inevitably become a pagan temple not unlike those in neighboring societies.

Which brings us to back to our kohanim.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, any influences from other faiths, or simple ignorance, the job of a kohen is not to minister to the people. His job is to minister exclusively to God.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, Aharon and his sons are called to the priesthood.  And no fewer than five times, Gםd makes it manifestly clear that their job is לכהן לי, to minister to Me (God).

  1. “And now take to you Aharon your brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to me  לכהנו לי (28:1)
  2. “… that they may make Aharon’s garments to consecrate him that he may minister to meלכהנו לי (28:3)
  3. “And they shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother and his sons to minister to meלכהנו לי (28:4)
  4. “And this is the thing you shall do to them to sanctify them to minister to me לכהן לי (29:1)

and finally;

  1. “… and I will sanctify Aharon and his sons to minister to me לכהן לי (29:44)

God makes it very clear that the role of the kohen is to minister to Him, and to Him alone.  It is not the kohen’s job to minister to people except insofar as such ministering is at God’s behest.  We, as ordinary Israelites, have no claims on the priest and he, in turn, owes us nothing – except insofar as he enables the presence of God in our midst.

How do we make sense of this? Are not the Bnei Israel entitled to some ministering? Don’t we need a priestly intermediary to act as our go-between to God? To whom are we ordinary mortals supposed to turn in our own hour of need?

This is precisely the point. We do not need a priest to serve as our advocate or as our confessor.  A Jew’s relationship with God is direct and personal, with no need for any go-betweens.  Why? Because God “dwells in our midst”. So long as He has His personally-designated, designed and dictated dwelling place “in our midst” we have no need for anyone to plead our case for us.

Which brings us back to the role of the Kohen. The priest’s job is to minister to God and to God alone.  His role is to maintain and operate
God’s physical residence on earth.  And so long as he fulfills his role by doing his job of ministering to God, we, in turn, can rely on God’s manifest presence in our midst, and our right and ability to address Him directly with our prayers and supplications.

Hence verse 29:44 is immediately followed by verse 45. To whit;

If Aharon and his sons do their job “by ministering to me” only then “And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God (45) And they will know that I am the Lord their G-d who brought them our of the Land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them, I am the Lord their God.” (46).

Ultimately the kohen’s role is critical for all of us. Because it is for the kohen to maintain God’s earthly domicile and to minister to God’s wishes. If he fulfills his obligation, we, in turn, can know that God is indeed present, and our relationship to Him is direct with no need for any intermediary.

This may help us understand the lead-up to the destruction of the Second Temple, when the corruption among the Hasmonean kohanim was so endemic and institutionalized that God certainly had no domicile in our midst, and we no longer had a God present to whom we could turn.

We listen to our hearts, not our heads

I couldn’t help but notice the deployment of the word “לב” (heart) in both parshiyot. As we saw above, the donations to the Mishkan’s construction were to come from “Every person whose heart inspired him to generosity”

Now in Tezaveh there are two more significant references to the heart:

וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־כָּל־חַכְמֵי־לֵ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִלֵּאתִ֖יו ר֣וּחַ חָכְמָ֑ה וְעָשׂ֞וּ אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֧י אַֽהֲרֹ֛ן לְקַדְּשׁ֖וֹ לְכַֽהֲנוֹ־לִֽי
“And you shall speak to all the wise of heart, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make Aaron’s garments … (28:3)

וְנָשָׂ֣א אַֽ֠הֲרֹ֠ן אֶת־שְׁמ֨וֹת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל בְּח֧שֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּ֛ט עַל־לִבּ֖וֹ בְּבֹא֣וֹ אֶל־הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ לְזִכָּרֹ֥ן לִפְנֵֽי־יְהֹוָ֖ה תָּמִֽיד:|“Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.” (28-29)

In each case – generosity, wisdom and judgment – one would expect reference to the head not the heart. Certainly in contemporary society, giving – especially major philanthropy – is done with tremendous gravitas, much deliberation, extensive scrutiny and – to say the least – a strong dollop of self-interest. Yet the Torah makes no such reference, asking instead that generosity be mindless and  entirely of the heart.

Wisdom, too, is something we associate with the mind. And yet the ones whom G-d “fills with the spirit of wisdom” are the חכמי לב  the “wise of heart”. These artists are blessed with an instinctive – even impulsive – creativity which is not the result of thoughts and second thoughts, discussions and committees, drafts and erasures, cuts and pastes. Hence art can yield something that may be timelessly magnificent.

Yes, those who work with their minds do necessary things. But those who work with their hearts have the capacity to make things that are immortal.

And finally when it comes to judgment, the High Priest upon entering the Holy of Holies carries the names of Israel not on his head but on his heart. Because it is the spirit of the law that matters most, and it is compassion (which never comes from the brain) that is paramount.

We Jews have for too long been slaves of our brains; living by intellect and cleverness rather than by emotion and instinct. From these two highly specific, precise, calibrated parshiot, Terumah and Tetzaveh, we come away with something quite opposite — namely the powerful message that at the start of the day, and at its end, what matters most is the unquantifiable, unmeasurable impulses and wisdoms of the heart.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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