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Torah Sparks

Parashat Tetzaveh
February 8, 2014 – 8 Adar I 5774

Annual (Exodus 27:20-30:10): Etz Hayim p. 503; Hertz p. 339
Triennial (Exodus 27:20-28:30): Etz Hayim p. 503; Hertz p. 339
Haftarah (Ezekiel 43:10-27): Etz Hayim p. 520; Hertz p. 350

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Greenbaum
Charleston, SC

God commands for olive oil to burn perpetually in the Mishkan.

The High Priest’s colorful and luxurious attire is introduced. His clothing is to include a long vest (called an “ephod”); a breastplate which include colored stones; a robe; a head covering; a tunic; and a sash. Other priests must wear turbans, sashes, tunics, and linen material covering the middle of the body.

Moses is instructed to coordinate a seven-day installation of the priests after the completion of the Tabernacle. The ceremony consists of dressing the priests and making several sacrifical offerings.

God commands that the people build an altar for the Mishkan for the burning of incense.

Theme #1: Oil Vey!

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. (Exodus 27:20)

A very specific kind of material must be used while burning a perpetual light in the Tabernacle, and the material does not lack in significance.

That olive oil is the fuel for the lamp … is not surprising. … Whether in the form of cured olives or pressed oil, olives or pressed oil, olives provided the basic fat source for the Mediterranean diet. ... Because the mature olive tree is far less susceptible to the repeated droughts of the highlands of the land of Israel than are field crops, planting olive trees meant establishing a relatively reliable food source. The olive tree thus symbolizes fertility in many biblical passages. The use of olive oil for the light source of the lampstand enhances the tree-of-life symbolic value already present in the tand itself. -- Carol Meyers, Exodus

In ancient Israel, oil, primarily made from pressed olives, was considered one of the three necessities of life together with food and clothing. It was used as a food, cosmetic, fuel, and medicine, as well as an export item. … Oil is one of the blessings God promises as a reward of faithfulness. Because of its value and centrality, oil symbolized honor, joy, and favor. -- Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols

Israel is likened to an olive which yields up its oil only when it is crushed, for Israel reveals its true virtues only when it is made to suffer. The Jews are also likened to oil which never mixes with any other liquid but always remains on top, for the Jews always remain above the other nations and never mingle with them. It is remarkable that although they have had to suffer torture and ppression, the Jews have remained on a level high above that of their oppressors and steadfastly refused to mingle with them. -- Tzror HaMor

Questions for Discussion:

Meyers explains that the olives used for burning are considered symbols for fertility. How would burning olive oil enhance that idea to the Israelites? Would doing so be a celebration of the times our ancestors are blessed with fertility? Or is it more a hope that their fertility might increase? Why would the Tabernacle be an appropriate place to hope for fertility?

Frankel and Teutsch find meaning in the oil itself, seeing it as one of the three necessities in ancient life (superseding that the need for shelter!). What are the physical items that you cannot do without? If, God-forbid, you were forced to flee from your home and only able to pack one suitcase, what would you pack? What besides food, clothing and shelter are the most important for all of us to own and share?

Tzror HaMor understands the significance in the crushed olive in that it only shows what it’s “made of” when it is pressed. Are pressure-filled situations the best way to understand a person’s character? Is it possible to measure a person’s worth (if we can at all) if that person hasn’t been truly tested? Is a poor performance while under pressure more important than a skillful performance under less trying circumstances?

Theme #2: Aaron on the Side of Caution

You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron. (Exodus 28:1)

For one of just a few times in the Torah, Aaron takes centerstage while Moses takes a supporting role to his older brother. It is this Moses-free text, then, that is introduced by three occurrences of the emphatic address to Moses: “And as for you …” The paradox is compelling: absence and presence, anonymity and insistent naming. Moses’ role becomes both conspicuous and problematic. … Birth and death, gain and loss, are figured in the reassuring intonation of “and as for you …” in a context where his name is absent and Aaron’s name dominates. Aaron’s name, indeed, occurs seven times within [the opening verses of Tetzaveh]. -- Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections of Exodus

God appointed Aaron, and not Moses, to the office of High Priest, because the work of bringing the people, including sinners, closer to The Lord required a leader who would be closer to the people than Moses. Due to the high moral level he had attained, Moses was too far removed from the people, and just as it useless to engage a great Talmudic scholar to teach a small child who has yet to learn the Hebrew alphabet, so Moses would not have made a good High Priest for the Children of Israel. -- Ohel Yaakov

During the entire seven days of consecration while Moses served, the Shekhinah did not occupy the Mishkan. But as soon as Aaron came in as High Priest, the Shekhinah dwelled within. -- Pesikta D’Rav Kahana

Questions for Discussion:

Zornberg feels that the absence of Moses’ name in the early verses of this portion is eye-opening, especially when seeing Aaron’s name multiple times. Is God trying to send a message to Moses? If so, what? Given that the Torah describes Moses as the most humble person on earth, might it be difficult or easy for Moses to step back to make room for his brother’s prominence? Or was this passage one of the occasions that helps give Moses that reputation in the first place?

Ohel Yaakov argues that Moses is too moral to serve in the role of High Priest because the job involves working directly with people who are far from attaining ethical excellence. Is it indeed impossible for a great person to relate to and teach those who are far from greatness? If it is possible, what obstacles stand in the way of such a great person from being an effective teacher? Is Aaron indeed a good choice to be High Priest because of his flaws?

Pesikta D’Rav Kahana says that Aaron’s term as High Priest makes it possible for God’s presence to dwell in the Mishkan. What other occasions transform because of the presence (or absence) of one person? Are there times when each of us impacts the mood and perspective of a group? If we don’t have that impact on a group, how do we go about doing so?

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