by Cantor David E. Reinwald
Last week was NY’s Fashion Week, and this week is the Torah’s. Parashat Tetzaveh depicts and describes all of the garments worn by the priests in times preceding the ancient temple, but that would eventually carry over into the temple ritual. Aaron and his sons wore garments that today remain centerpieces in our tradition. You see them every week, for they are in the ark dressing the Torah. These include the choshen, the breastplate on the Torah. It can be designed with carvings of silver depicting the hands of the priests, the tablets of the 10 commandments, or is sometimes adorned with 12 different stones, each for a different tribe (and this symbol has carried over into other Judaic objects). These stones are specifically mentioned in this portion. I love the multitude of color in the symbol of those stones. There is even a belief connected through Josephus (the documentarian and historian living in the 1st century C.E. known best for his descriptions of the tragedy at Masada) that the 12 stones for the 12 tribes is the source for the idea of today’s modern birthstones. Fashionable, or what?
The other garments worn include the ephod, today’s modern Torah cover, and in the past, a sort of tunic worn by the priest. The priests also wore a blue robe called a may’il which had images of pomegranates on it and carried bells– today the crowns of the Torah are called rimonim— pomegranates, and sometimes are even designed to look like pomegranates, and almost all crowns have numerous bells. Our connection to hearing a Torah move around the sanctuary toward us, or even seeing a Torah moved from room to room (or often in our case at TBS, building to building) is one that is often aural before it is visual. One can imagine that they heard a priest approaching before they saw him, expecting and perhaps being able to prepare themselves for his presence.
Today, as a cantor, I rarely don garments that mark me different from the kahal, the congregation. Yes, Rabbi and I wear tallitot at all services, but it is mainly us being in front of the congregation during services that marks us as the leaders. My weekly Shabbat fashion is no different from what most people would wear to a business meeting. Once a year, during the High Holidays, we don white robes, and it is perhaps at that time that we look most different and offset from the regular service attendee.
I have often had the experience, however, when I’m at temple for a casual gathering when someone says to me, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you, Cantor! You aren’t dressed up.” This person likely got used to my “Shabbat clothes,” and suddenly I appeared different to them. I always find this to be funny, because clothes clearly do not create cantors or leaders– but they surely create an impression. And, this is what this whole portion is about–how we set ourselves apart. Judaism has so many elements of setting things apart– the most prime example is Shabbat as a day set apart from the rest. Here, clothes set apart the clan of the priests from the rest. Comparably, think about how what a bride and her wedding party wears elevates their stature in a ceremony. One does not need to ask any questions in identifying who is who.
Yet, I challenge us to ask if the Torah wants us to think of the priests as holier than the rest or just ones who needed to be reminded that they were consistently doing holy work? What they wore stood as a reminder to everyone, including to themselves, of the commitment they had made. Today, each and every one of us can do holy work of our own choosing and we have various visual reminders of this (ie: tallitot, mezzuzot, etc.) and also to the less tangible things that point us in this direction (ie: prayer, attending services, Torah study, etc.). So, how do we mark the actual work we do as holy and how do we offset the way we approach it? I wish we had (and am even thinking of creating for myself) a blessing that allows one to step into these moments with meaning and value.
Within the choshen, the priests had another garment– the umim and tumim, believed to be a piece of parchment that had the name of God written on it. Placed within the choshen over the priest’s heart, this seems to represent that secret, mystical power, encompassed deep within us, felt in our heart and soul–the ultimate connection to the divine. When we have moments of doubt or questioning, but also in our great spiritual highs, we may find answers in this mystical calling and connection to God. It is neither rational nor explainable. It is a gut feeling. It could be an out-of-body experience. It is knowing what is right and wrong for ourselves. It just … is.
Havayah Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.
An experience– I will be what I will be.