Thursday, February 6, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh: Priestly Garments and Tachritim, Burial Shrouds

Priestly Garments and Tachritim, Burial Shrouds
Co-written Rabbah Arlene Berger and Barbara Goldstein Durand
Parashat Tetzaveh
published in Washington Jewish Week, February 7, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh describes in great detail, starting in Chapter 28:4-5, the rules for the special garments that priests in the Temple had to wear: 

These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece choshen, an ephod ephod, a robe me’il, a fringed tunic k’tonet tashbetz, a headdress mitznefet, and a sash avnet (or gartel in Yiddish). They shall make those sacral vestments for your borhter Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me…and the fine linen.” 

The parashah then describe the specifics of each of these articles, including their colors, stones, dimensions, and placement.  In verse 42, the Torah mentions one last item, breeches michnasaiyim, garments of practicality as opposed to articles of “dignity and adornment.” 

This parashah gives us some great examples of the many rules that Judaism has. (I will pause here for everyone to shout out their disbelief that Judaism has lots of rules…..Now that that’s out of the way, I will continue.) Some of these rules make obvious sense, like most of the 10 commandments. Others tell us how to observe our religion, such honor the Sabbath or observe certain holidays. Others make no discernable sense but Jews are expected to follow them because G-d gave them to us— like Shatnez (prohibition on mixing linen and wool) and keeping kosher. The rules about the priestly garments in this week’s parashah are probably in this last category—or are they?

Judaism also has a lot of traditions. I am convinced that our traditions keep us alive. Our traditions are the tachliss, the practical (or impractical) everyday ways in which we obey our commandments, in which we “do” everyday Judaism. Our traditions have allowed Judaism to survive for thousands of years. Reading the Torah portion every week is one of those traditions. I am very grateful for this particular tradition. Especially this week. 

I’ve been studying Parashat Tezaveh this week as I sit by the bedside of my aunt and dear lifelong friend, Barbara Goldstein Durand.  She is dying. When you talk to her, you might not realize that at first. Her attitude is serene, full of love for life and all around her. But still, she is dying. And at this time when her life could end at any moment, she is still vitally alive. One way to demonstrate her vitality has been to study with me as I prepared this Dvar Torah and to discuss the Parashah as part of our preparations for her death. 

As Aunt and I read these passages, she stopped me and said, “these sound a lot like what we [i.e., Jews] wear when we die, the shrouds.” She’s right. The tachritim, the simple white shrouds that Jews wear when they are buried are modeled after the clothing prescribed for the Cohen Gadol to wear (exact items that are worn as shroud are transliterated in the passage above). 

My Aunt is the daughter of a Cohen and a Levi – although it was a modern early twentieth century marriage with her mom being the bat Cohen and her dad being the Levi. As a direct descendent of both Aaron and Moshe, Aunt wondered if she were entitled to certain benefits in choosing her shroud. Could she have a designer shroud? Could she have some of the stones mentioned in the Parashah on her shroud or perhaps a special embroidered design? 

But although we don’t know the reasons for all of the rules for the priestly garments, there is a good reason why all Jews wear only a simple shroud when they are buried——to show that all people, rich or poor, regardless of gender or status, are equal before G-d. We all come into this world having been created in the image of G-d and we will all return to G-d in the same way—regardless of what we have done (or not done) during our sojourn on this earth. 

While Aunt really liked the idea of a designer shroud, she accepted with good grace the notion that she couldn’t have one. Even though the ancient priests got to wear beautiful and very special clothes, Aunt understood that these commandments don’t apply to their descendants. 

Aunt agreed, instead, to “accessorize” her shroud with her father’s tallit. Another piece of Jewish sancta. Another way of way of showing that she is part of the people Israel. A way to pay homage to her past, to take with her the parents that she adored and missed for so long, and looks forward to seeing again. Aunt’s parents (my grandparents) are the ones who initiated Aunt into the “tribe.” They taught her what it means to be Jewish. 

So, even at the end of her life, Aunt is still doing what we Jews do best—she’s following the rules, including learning Torah and teaching Torah. And she’s doing something else that we Jews do—figuring out ways to skirt the rules legally to get what she wants. May we all be blessed to follow such an example. 

1. Why do you think the priests were commanded to wear such elaborate outfits? Can you think of similar rules for certain groups of people today? 

2. If we still had priesthood today, which rules for priests in the parashah would you change? 

3. Can you think of more examples of rules in Judaism that make obvious sense, that tell us how to observe our religious, and that made no obvious sense?