Habit Forming – Parshat Tetzaveh 5781

You may know this about me, but I am a creature of habit. Some habits are helpful, like my habit of making sure clothes aren’t inside out before they go in the laundry (since I’m the one who always does the folding). Other habits are more superficial, bordering on ridiculous, like having a certain outfit I always wear on airplanes. Most habits fall somewhere in between, and have just become part of my daily routine for one reason or another. 

In particular, my favorite habit is one that began when I had children. We now sing the Shema together every night with them at bedtime and sing Modeh Ani upon waking up. This routine, done day after day, provides me with a way to verbalize my connection to both my children and our faith. It’s a nightly proclamation that there is a God, that God is one, and that we are connected to God.

Even though I’m a rabbi, I haven’t always been able to find that daily connection. In rabbinical school I prayed with a minyan at least once a day, and often three times a day, and while I loved the ritual that filled my senses, it didn’t always bring me a connection to God in the same way that seeing the ocean or going for a sunset walk did. However, I learned that simply having the ritual itself was enough of a connection, and “feeling it” every time was much less important. This idea begins in our Torah portion this week, Parshat Tetzaveh. 

In Parshat Tetzaveh, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests are designated to wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. 

The ritual part comes towards the end of the portion, when we receive the laws of the “regular burnt offering.” In Hebrew this is called the Olat haTamid, and it is the core of the sacrificial system. Twice a day a lamb was wholly burned on the altar. Needless to say, we’ve long since removed literal sacrifices from our worship, but when this ritual was put in place, it was a big step for the Israelites. Having a priest designated and a sacred altar prepared, the Israelites now finally had a physical way to connect with God twice a day. 

The 19th century Orthodox rabbi Rav Kook suggests that until now, holiness was manifested only occasionally and sporadically in the world. Now that Israel has received the Torah, the world would know holiness on a regular, daily basis. The daily offering is the commandment to stop at least once a day and connect with God in whatever way you can. From daily minyan or a daily walk to a tight snuggle and Shema before bed, the parshah and our Torah remind us that it’s the act of doing that makes the habit. 

Here, There, Everywhere – Parshat Tetzaveh 5780

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At our twice-monthly Tot Shabbat celebrations, we sing about how “God is everywhere, and God is one.” We then ask the children to tell us where they might find God, and the range of answers is beautifully diverse. We find God in the sky, the trees, the sun, and the moon. And apparently we find God in places like ice cream, unicorns, and fire trucks. We find God in our mommies and daddies, and we find God in our hearts.

Every time we sing this prayer, I am awestruck by the different ways in which our children are able to “see God.” They understand and acknowledge that different circumstances call for different visions of God, and the way their week has gone is often the determining factor in how they see God working in our world. Most importantly, however, they ALWAYS see God.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, the Torah portion we read this week, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them and what they are to look like. 

There are precise garments and colors that the Priest is mandated to wear. They are made up of linen and wool and defined by certain colors as well. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a modern commentator on the Torah, the linen represents the vegetable/plant world and is white, the color of purity. The wool, a symbol of the animal world, is red, purple, and crimson. Other garments are blue, like the sky. Each color and material represents a different part of our world, a different level of connection with our natural surroundings, and thus a different type of connection with God. 

Just like these various articles of clothing, there are many levels by which we may connect to God and each other. It might be on an earthy, deep, dark crimson level, or flying high like the bright blue of the sky. We might feel plant-based and pure, but relatively still, or we could be purple and red and animalistic in our tendencies.

The High Priest wears each color and material as a representation of how diverse our community is, and the priest serves them all at any time and any stage. What a wonderful example for leaders today. Though they may not represent it by their clothing the way the priests did, modern leaders must be equipped to work with a variety of people and maintain a variety of relationships. This is the type of community in which God is most surely present.

You Are What You Wear – Parshat Tetzaveh 5779

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If you’ve spent any time with me in recent years, you may have noticed that I have a particular fondness for shoes. I LOVE shoes. The best ones are versatile and can take an outfit from dressy to casual and vice versa. The best part is that usually shoes fit no matter what other size issues or feelings I’m having with the rest of my body. I rarely have a “fat foot” day, and most of my shoes put a big smile on my face.

I have a particular penchant for Converse now that we’ve moved to Portland (where the parent company Nike is based), and when it comes to design, the sparklier, the better. My sequined high-top Converse are my favorite shoes. The minute I saw them my whole face lit up, and I knew I had to have them. I received them as a gift with the promise that if I wore them, I’d brighten other people’s days as much as they brightened mine. And every time I wear them, I get smiles and hugs and lots of awesome conversations. The shoes certainly don’t make the rabbi, but the rabbi’s shoes can definitely make people smile.

Our Torah reading this week comes from Parshat Tetzaveh. Parshat Tetzaveh details the specific clothing items that a priest and those close to him are to wear. This is special attire that distinguishes them from others in their service to God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their sacred duties. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God also gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. After we receive these specifics, we learn about the details of what is on each garment.

Notably, the priests do not receive shoes, as they do their work barefoot. They do, however, wear ornate tunics and clothing made specifically so that others will know that they are a priest. This is reflected today on our Torah itself, which wears ornate clothing so it will always be seen as precious and special. I read this text and wonder if we treated our bodies as the priests did – in other words if we dressed ourselves so that we were recognized as individual, unique, and special – would we be better able to celebrate personal style and choices?

My sparkly Converse are definitely a bold choice for a rabbi to don as footwear, but they also identify me and my personality. That’s an individual choice. While they may not be everyone’s first choice to wear, they certainly make me feel confident and proud, and that’s the feeling I want to impart to students and congregants.

Parshat Tetzaveh comes as a yearly reminder that while we shouldn’t judge each other based on clothes, clothes do have the ability to set us apart as individuals and the power to influence how we feel about ourselves. Wear what makes you you, just as the priests did and just as the Torah does. Wear what brings a smile to your face, because you deserve it.

Just Enough – Parshat Tetzaveh 5778

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I have a hard time with self control and portion control. I like sweets, I like salty foods, I like a glass of wine. I can usually set a limit for myself, but there are moments of weakness when I simply want to eat all the food I see. In particular, my sugar addiction is so strong that I actually wake up excited to take my daily vitamin, which comes in the form of a gummy bear. But, I have to remind myself that just because it is sweet and delicious does not mean that I can take more than the recommended dose. 

As with so many things, moderation is key, and there are limits to safe usage. Whether we’re talking about food or video game playing, watching TV or taking medicine, there are guidelines for appropriate use so that we maintain a healthy life and lifestyle. The Torah drives home this point in Parshat Tetzaveh. Parshat Tetzaveh begins with the instructions on using the anointing oils by the high priests and the directions for the sacred clothing of Aaron and his sons. It continues with the directions for building the breastplate and the tunic, the jacket, and the pants for the priests and then details how to sanctify Aaron and his sons in seven days of service. 

What I find intriguing is the final direction in the parshah. The final section of this text details the safe and appropriate use of the incense and other spices of the tabernacle. This is the first time that the Israelites will be engaging in this type of ritual and so, like the pharmacist distributing a medication for the first time, the Torah gives clear guidelines as to where, when, and how much might be used. As a refined recipe calls for just a pinch of a stronger spice, so too the Torah reminds us just a pinch of spice, a bit of incense can go a long way in establishing both ritual and sacred space.

A little goes a long way. Often we think of life in terms of bold flavors, grand gestures, big ideas, and major milestone moments. However, this week the Torah is reminding us that while all of those have their place in the world, the rest of life is made up of the intricate, delicate details. A light dusting of an unusual flavor, the handwritten thank-you card, a pink sunset – these are the things that bring life pleasure.

Dog Only Knows – Parshat Tetzaveh 5777

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Is God easily startled? It sounds like an odd question until you examine this week’s Torah portion. In describing the clothes the priests are to wear, the Torah says, “Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out, that he may not die.” Is Aaron supposed to tie a bell or some sort of collar around himself to announce his presence? Certainly there is great value in knowing what’s coming, who’s coming, and when they’re coming.

If in fact God wishes not to be startled, I can sympathize. I startle very easily. I tend to zone out extraneous noises, usually because I end up so focused on whatever I’m doing. However, that means that I could be so intently working on a project that I miss the sound of someone walking into the room, and suddenly I jump because there’s someone behind me. At these jumpy moments, my heart startles and races, my adrenaline is pumping, and it takes me a good few minutes to calm back down. And no matter how often this happens (or how often I remind the rest of my family I startle easily) someone or something still manages to get me at least once a week. The only one in our house that doesn’t need to announce himself is our dog Stanley. The tags on his collar jingle so loudly that I can hear him coming from the other end of the house.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, the Torah portion we read this week, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests are designated to wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God also gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. Aside from these verses on apparel, the remainder of the parshah is mostly centered around the role of the priest.

But of course to me the most interesting thing we learn from this section is that it’s forbidden to enter a room without first announcing your presence. Sometimes we suggest, in a variety of circumstances, that “half the battle is showing up.” Well in this case, along with the notion of respect that comes from announcing yourself, the Torah teaches us that showing up is pretty darn important. Both you and the person you are meeting should be equally aware of the encounter about to happen, and each “meeting” we have is also an opportunity to encounter the divine. Affording our interactions this extra level of formality is another way the Torah lifts up the mundane and helps us find meaning in everything we do.