12 Adar I 5784 / February 21, 2024 Parashat T'tzaveh What Moral Leadership Looks Like Torah Portion: Exodus 27:20-30:10 Haftarah Portion: Ezekiel 43:10-27
We continue in this week’s Torah portion with the lengthy, multi-part instructions for the mishkan. The mishkan, or “tabernacle,” is the portable sanctuary the Israelites will carry with them in the wilderness.
In this section, God gives instructions to Moses for the mishkan’s priests: “You are to make garments of holiness for Aaron your brother, for glory and for splendor” (Exodus 28:2).
Many commentators have weighed in on that somewhat puzzling final description, “for glory and for splendor,” sometimes translated as “for dignity and for adornment.” Several interpret the phrase as an indication that occupants of the sacred office of priest must be distinguishable from laity. The medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra explains: “They shall beautify themselves with these garments, for no other Israelite shall wear similar garments.”[i]
The 19th-century German scholar Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch clarifies that the distinction is not a question of ego, but of survival: “The character of the priesthood...is so dependent on the priestly garments and upon every detail connected with them...that without these garments the priest is regarded as a ‘stranger’...”[ii]
Indeed, we learn elsewhere in Torah what happens to a non-priest in the mishkan: “[A]ny outsider who encroaches shall be put to death” (Numbers 18:7). So the clothing is essential to the priest’s duties; without it, the priest is subject to the same danger from God’s presence in the Holy of Holies as are the rest of the Israelites.
Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation evinces some discomfort with the possibility that priestly leadership might be characterized solely by hierarchy and appearance. And so he goes on to ascribe moral valence to clothing, hearkening back to the story of the first two humans in the Book of Genesis. When sending Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eve, Rabbi Hirsch explains, God gave them clothing so that they would not act as animals: “Clothing perse is a reminder of [hu]man’s moral calling; it is the first and most conspicuous feature that characterizes a creature as a human being.”[iii]
The idea here is that clothing might elevate our humanity, and that there can be lessons gleaned from our garments beyond covering ourselves or staying warm. Other scholars layer in more evidence for how clothing can function as a reminder—even an imperative. Indeed, a particularly special force behind the imperative in the title of this week’s Torah portion is central to unpacking the portion.
The 19th-century rabbi, Avraham Weinberg of Slonim (a Hasidic dynasty from what is now Belarus), makes a similar point in a teaching about the unusual word for which our parashah is named, t’tzaveh, “you shall command.” The verb is an intensification of the more common form, tzav, “command”: Ibn Ezra says that the form indicates that what is to follow is a mitzvah (commandment) for all generations.[iv]
Rabbi Weinberg also says that t’tzaveh is in Hebrew an acronym for the phrase “Listen to the cry of the poor and save them.”[v] In this parashah that describes the priestly garments, he claims, we learn that what leadership actually looks like is attunement to injustice, not presentation of authority. Thus, the phrase “for honor and for glory” suggests that distinguished leadership must always be about the elevation of the vulnerable, not about the aggrandizement of the priests themselves. The trappings of authority are but to facilitate deep listening to those who are crying out for help.
This imperative is one that truly should echo from generation to generation. When we don power—or anything that might literally or metaphorically wield “glory and splendor” – may we be reminded of the imperative to seek justice. This Shabbat and always, may we seek that quality in our leaders, and may we ourselves be those leaders.
Shabbat shalom! Rabbi Salem Pearce ISJL Director of Spirituality
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[i] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 28:2. [ii] The Pentateuch (with a translation by Sampson Raphael Hirsch and excerpts from The Hirsch Commentary), ed. Ephraim Oratz (New York: The Judaica Press, 1990), p. 323. [iii] Hirsch, p. 324. [iv] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 27:20. [v] Ma’adanei Melech, Parashat T’tzaveh, accessed at https://bit.ly/isjltetzaveh.