Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tetzaveh (Torah)

“Garments for Glory and for Beauty”

This week’s portion is largely devoted to a discussion of the elaborate garments worn by the High Priest: a set of eight garments, richly woven with threads of gold and purple and deep sea blue and crimson and white linen. Its crowning glory was the Hoshen ha-Mishpat, the “breastplate of judgment” worn over his chest, set with twelve precious stones symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel. Within this were placed the “Urim and Tummim,” the mysterious and undefined oracle by whose means Aaron was able to ask questions that perplexed him and receive Divine guidance. (Interestingly, only as an afterthought, so it seems, does our chapter mention the much simpler garments worn by the regular priests; 28:40-43)

The section is opened by the phrase, “and you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (le-khavod ule-tiferet; 28:2). The notion is an interesting one: every culture seems to have a need for a certain pomp and circumstance surrounding moments of high solemnity, particularly those surrounding religious ceremony. One is reminded of, le-havdil, the ornate vestments worn by the priests in the “High” Christian churches or, for that matter, their use in the classical Reform moment, notwithstanding their rejection of many of the “unnecessary” externalities of the halakhah: witness the cathedral-like, Gothic construction, rose windows and Gothic structure of its flagship Temple Emanuel on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Aesthetics, it would seem, always has the power to stir human emotions. Perhaps the Torah makes a certain concession here to a deep-seated human need; or perhaps it recognizes that this love of the ornate/aesthetic is not wholly negative, but that within reasonable boundaries it too reflects an important element of the holy. After all, the Kabbalah sees “tiferet” (beauty} and “hod” (splendor) among the sefirot, the seven building blocks of creation.

Be that as it may, there is also a fundamental tension between the tendency towards elaboration and ceremony within religious worship, and the pursuit of absolute simplicity and even humility. (This is part of the conflict in Western Christian culture between Protestantism and Catholicism; some want to see it in Judaism as paradigmatic for the difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, or between Mitnaggedim and Hasidim.) A. A. Kaplan, in a book entitled Be-‘Ikvot ha-Yir’ah, describes an encounter at a summer watering place between two diametrically opposed rabbinic types: Rav Yisrael Salanter, wearing a plain black coat, walking on foot, unaccompanied in the road; and a Galician Hasidic rebbe, perhaps R. Israel of Ryzhin, wearing a satin brocade robe, riding in a carriage drawn by two handsome steeds and surrounded by an entourage. Upon seeing him, Rav Salanter asked: “Why do you need all these accoutrements? Are you trying to imitate the Gentile kings? Our honor lies in humble submission to God!” To which the rebbe replied: “For whom then did God create such opulence in the world, if not to honor the Almighty, by their use by those who serve Him?”

Interestingly, on the Day of Atonement the High Priest put aside his elaborate gold vestments, and wore simple, pure white garments, like the simplest, ordinary priest (or, to be more precise: for the routine, everyday parts of the Yom Kippur ritual he paradoxically wore the eight golden garments, while for the special atonement rituals he changed into the white garments). On the highest level of holiness and closeness to God, attained only on Yom ha-Kippurim, or Yom ha-Kadosh, “The Holy Day,” utmost simplicity is called for. Or, one may argue, the process of atonement, and the implicit sense of sin and human imperfection that prompt it, made it impossible for him on that day to wear garments of splendor. Or, better, the keen sense of truth and authenticity and awareness of the human situation experienced on that day, lead to humility and a sense of smallness. Or, perhaps, these two are really one.

“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee; the lifting up of my hands as an evening service” (Psalm 141:2)

This week’s portion incorporates commandments relating to three fixed features of the Temple service: the lighting of the candles each evening in the Menorah (quite inexplicably sandwiched in at the very beginning of the parshah, without any clear relation to either what precedes or what follows it immediately: 27:20-21); the making of the incense altar (also seemingly not in its proper place), on which incense was to be burned every morning and evening; and the regular perpetual offering (korban tamid), the two sheep offered every day, morning and evening, which were wholly consumed by fire. These last are introduced by the words “And this is what you shall make upon the altar...” (29:38; as if to say: pure, disinterested avodah, service of the Divine, and not the varied occasional sin-offerings and peace-offerings brought by individuals, is the essential purpose of the altar); elsewhere, much later, this offering enjoys the unique appellation “a perpetual offering, made on Mount Sinai, a pleasing fragrance to the Lord” (Num 28:6). The common feature of all three—the oil, the incense, and the flesh—is that they are offered in such a manner that they are wholly consumed; no part is left to be eaten, either by the priests or by those bringing the offering; they serve no expiatory function, but are wholly a gift to God, so to speak.

I would like to take these offerings as a metaphor for the religious life, for the nature of prayer. For many, if not most, modern Jews—including the Orthodox—the entire subject is a highly very problematic one. That this is so even for the latter may be seen by the dry, flat, hurried nature of davening in most “modern” or “centrist” Orthodox shuls, not only on weekdays, when people are understandably pressured, but even on Shabbat. Too often, the Siddur seems to be viewed as a text to be recited as rapidly as possible, and more often than not at such break-neck speed that it becomes virtually impossible to even attempt any sort of kavvanah, of inner attention or focused devotion.

Various attempts have been made in recent generations to make prayer more “relevant.” Some have tried to redefine it or reinterpret it as an exercise in Jewish ethnic, cultural, or national identity (thus, e.g., Mordecai Kaplan); in what may be a sophisticated variant of this, the God question is “bracketed,” prayer being viewed as one of the activities stemming from the existential decision to belong to a faith community, which may be rooted in ethical values (thus I read David Hartman’s position); yet another group, seemingly despairing of spiritually meaningful prayer, views prayer as a formal halakhic obligation, requiring the recitation of certain texts three times a day as a sign of our allegiance to God, of our commitment to God, of accepting the obligation to serve Him. To seek any inner experience is sheer folly. Thus, for example, the late Prof Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

Matters are complicated by the natural association of prayer, in Western parlance, with “petition” or “supplication”—as asking God to fulfill our needs. This is, of course, an important, legitimate element in prayer. Yet even a cursory examination of the Siddur reveals that only a small part of the daily liturgy is devoted to petitionary prayer as such. On the contrary: it opens with hymns of praise and thanksgiving, followed by blessings used to introduce the Shema, the declaration of God’s sovereignty and unity: essentially, an act in which the individual begins and ends his day by “accepting God’s kingdom.” Even the Amidah, the “prayer” per excellence, begins and ends with three blessings of praise and thanks, while even the middle blessings of the weekday Shemonah Esreh begin with three petitions for what are clearly spiritual gifts: wisdom and understanding; strength to return to the path of Torah; and expatiation and forgiveness for the sins and shortcomings which are an inevitable part of human life. Not to mention the fact that on Shabbat and all festivals we entirely eschew supplicatory prayer, the middle blessings being replaced by a single blessing celebrating the spiritual themes of the particular day.

One thus is led to the conclusion that the essence of prayer (even in terms of its purely halakhic definition) is avodah: prayer as service of God, as an act of gratuitous devotion and love for God, in which man sees himself standing before his Creator. Its essence lies in the spiritual and mental posture of individual vis-a-vis himself, the world and God: modesty, humility, acceptance of the yoke of God’s kingdom, a certain negation of ones own ego and selfhood. Here, the images from this week’s portion of the smoke of the candle, the incense, and the burnt-offering ascending heavenward are apt. Indeed, it is no accident that Hazal say that “tefillot keneged korbanot tuknu”: that the three daily prayers correspond to the sacrificial offerings in the Temple. Nor is it an accident that passages from the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Talmud dealing with sacrifices form a major unit in the preliminary section of the traditional liturgy. The Sefat Emet in fact draws a clear parallel among the various “dwelling places” we make for God: the Temple, Shabbat, tefillin. The latter two are intimately bound with prayer: the hour we wear tefillin in the weekday morning, and the day of Shabbat as a whole, are times set aside for avodah.

Some years ago, I tried to write a piece on Maimonidean spirituality for a volume on Jewish spirituality; in retrospect, I realize that at the time I was not yet ripe for the task. What I would l say, were I to write such an essay today, would be roughly the following. Maimonides is generally thought of as a rationalist, as one who rejected any form of mysticism, and as a bitter opponent of whatever precursors of Spanish Kabbalah existed in his day. Yet this is only a half-truth. He devotes most of the Guide for the Perplexed, and many passages in the Yad ha-Hazakah, the Commentary on the Mishnah, and his epistles to different Jewish communities, to dispelling superstitions and misconceptions. His goal in this is to combat gross, anthropomorphic conceptions of God which prevent clear, correct conceptions of the One God. But the ultimate goal of all this is not a cold, purely intellectual knowledge of religious doctrine, but a sublime, emotionally intense love of God. The ultimate goal, as he explains in Chapter 10 of Hilkhot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), is to serve God with an all-consuming longing and passion, like the love for a woman so vividly depicted in Song of Songs. Not for any pleasure to be derived, however refined and subtle and spiritual it may be, but for the sake of God Himself. Beyond that, the Abraham-like “lover of God” may attain unio mystuica or even prophecy (see Yesodei Ha-Torah, Ch. 7), through a long process of learning, moral self-work, contemplation, isolation from the distraction of the company of others (taking neither cellular phone nor lap-top and modem to his retreat)—but this is not his goal.

“But one thing have I asked of the Lord, that I will seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to visit in his temple” [Psalm 27:4].


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