Parshat Tetzaveh: The Secular Kohen

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This Torah Short is about an avowedly secular man – who is unexpectedly chosen to be the next Kohen Gadol (High Priest).

This story is available as a podcast (above) or text (below). Clock the headline to get to a printable version.

I have to say, I was surprised by the knock on my door. I was living alone, in an old apartment in Petach Tikva. I didn’t have many – no scratch that – I never had any guests. It wasn’t that I was a loner, not at all. It was that I was embarrassed. The apartment had been owned by my parents. I’d inherited it. I’d never really left it, actually. I mean, I went to school and the army and got a job and all that – but I’d always lived there, in that same tiny, run-down, apartment. I’d thought about upgrading it, but between the long hours and my low salary as an associate Professor of Fashion Design at the Tel Aviv School of Design, it had never really been possible. If I received packages, I received them at my office at the school. And nobody came asking for money. My house didn’t have a promising look.

But, there was that knock. And so I went to open the door. On the other side was an old man, a Rabbi, facing me. He was dressed all in black. He was clearly in the wrong neighborhood.

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t have money for you.” He just stood there and smiled mysteriously. The Haredim had always annoyed me. They sat in Yeshivot and studied while I worked and paid my taxes. I paid them to sit around.

The man kept standing there. “Get a job.” I said, roughly, and began to close the door.

“Actually,” said the man, “I’d like to offer you a job.”

That was enough to stop me from closing the door. What the heck was he talking about?

“Your parents died, in an accident at sea?” he asked, carefully.

“Yes,” I said, not wanting to remember their vacation gone horribly wrong.

“And there was no funeral, I mean, with a body?” he asked.

“That’s correct,” I said slowly. I was beginning to lose my patience.

“Have you ever been to a funeral?” he asked.

“I’ve never been to a funeral,” I shot back, “What the hell is this all about?”

“Well,” said the man, with that same calm smile, “That’s good. I’m here as a representative of the Sanhedrin.”

“Uh,” I answered, uncertain, “The Sanhedrin?”

“The famous Rabbinical court?” he said, almost curious if I knew what he was talking about.

I wanted to yank the man’s beard. This had to be a practical joke.

“And what,” I asked, “do you want with me?”

“We have appealed to the government, for a dispensation.”

“Okay?” I asked.

“We want to temporarily place the Mishkan – the temporary, travel-size, version of the Temple, on the Temple Mount during the three Holiday festivals. We’d displace nothing else, we’d just enable Jewish worship at the site. And because the building is inherently temporary, we’ll take it down and move it elsewhere afterwards.”

“What does this have to do with me?” I asked.

“For reasons I can’t really understand, you’ve been selected for a critical job.”

“What job?” I asked.

“Kohen Gadol,” said the man, referring to the role of High Priest.

I just stared at him. And then I did it. I reached out and tugged at his beard. He yelped. The beard didn’t come off.

I slowly pulled my hand away.

“How could I possibly be the Kohen Gadol?” I asked.

“Because,” the old man said, still wincing, “The Sanhedrin has chosen you for the job.”

“But why,” I asked, incredulous, “I think the whole Temple thing is a bunch of ritualistic mumbo-jumbo.”

The Rabbi smiled gently and said, “Consider this an opportunity to learn about a particular culture and type of design.”

I just looked at him, less than convinced. But then he added, “We have substantial foreign contributions and are able to offer you a significant stipend.”

That got my attention. My apartment needed the help.

“Okay,” I said, after a pause that was shorter than my pride would normally have allowed.

 

I got permission from my department, they saw it as an intense and insider’s view of a particular culture of design. I was granted an impromptu Sabbatical; opportunities like this didn’t pop up every millennium.

What followed was an extensive training program. It was just what I expected, a whole bunch of mumbo-jumbo. The people who were teaching me all seemed to resent me. They couldn’t understand why I was chosen. And I got that. The rules seemed to call for somebody wise and full of the fear of G-d – I certainly didn’t fit their definition of those words. Heck, I didn’t fit my own definition of those words. I firmly belonged to Israel’s secular camp. I wasn’t committed to not believing in G-d – but I was certainly on the spectrum.

I didn’t fit what they wanted. And yet, somehow, the Sanhedrin had chosen me. I couldn’t begin to understand it.

As I learned, I was shocked by how committed my teachers were. They acted like followers of a mindless cult. They memorized the laws and procedures and yet none of them seemed able to give me a decent explanation for why we were studying what we were studying. Why offer up a bull for this procedure or that? Why build this weird little building? Sure, they had nice little homilies for some things. But the whole package never seemed to come together. Everything seemed to have some partial, mystical, take as to why even though the what was incredibly detailed in its nature. It seemed like a mockery of ritual.

Incredibly, though, I took it all in. I understood the procedures. I memorized them. I could act them out, perfectly, after one mock run. And I was also willing to carry them out. I was remarkably pliable. But I didn’t understand them. Of course, it seemed like nobody did.

As we dug deeper, I realized that in many cases the people teaching me didn’t understand the what either. What do angels on cloth look like? What kind of weaving went into garments? What was the true shape of the Menorah or the angels on the Ark? They didn’t know. Nobody knew.

But I was a University Professor. And so, I began to ask around. The Rabbis had their sources, but I had others. It was a fun little project for those I worked with, they weren’t committed to any of it. But, slowly and surely, they began to share what they knew and what they could learn. And slowly and surely, we moved away from the Greek images of Herod’s Temple and back towards something far more fundamental. And then, slowly but surely, they got more and more involved. Archeologists, literary critics, industrial designers, sociologists, political scientists – they all found themselves being pulled into this world. A distraction became a passion. Their hearts were poured into this work.

It was during this process, riding on the backs of Rabbis and Professors alike, that I began to understand the symbolism. Some of it was obvious. Blue is the color of sky, a place without loss and death. Purple of honor. But some was less obvious. My University colleagues began to pour over the text – not to discover what was wrong or human or edited in it. But to figure out what was meant by certain terms. And they used their tools, their secular tools, to tie things together. The “scarlet red” of Tola’at Shani referred to the worms that ate the Manna. They taught trust in G-d, but also represented His faith to us. The Shiesh Mashzar referred to linen, the fabric equivalent of wheat; grown and processed by man. It represented our labor. And so on an so forth.

Slowly but surely opinions shifted. We went from trying to tear down to trying to understand. And then, slowly but surely, we began to uncover a logic in the text. There was a symbolic logic, hidden right below the surface. Even those who were convinced it was one of the worst-edited documents in history began to see it. They began to see it because, for the first time, they were looking for it. Not only that, but they began to educate those who had spent their lives studying it.

All of this went well, our national understanding growing, until we got to the garments of the Kohen Gadol. When we hit the clothes I was supposed to wear, we hit a wall.

We knew the materials. We knew the verses, Professors and Rabbis alike. We’d guessed and surmised and tried out ways of making these garments. But we had no idea what they stood for. We’d researched for months. We’d examined other nearby cultures. We dug through the Talmud. But nothing was satisfying. To me, at least, the clothes were a mystery.

During this entire process, the ‘sample’ Mishkan that had been assembled in Shiloh was being brought up to snuff. Materials were being upgraded, assumptions checked and patterns woven once again. But finally, the building was ready. It was disassembled and then carried to then entrance of the Temple Mount.

Security was incredibly high. We were going to assemble the Mishkan for one week, and then take it down again. It was to be a week of consecration. The literal word was Chanukah – the dedication. And so, Chanukah had been chosen as the time of construction. This was the only time, at least for the foreseeable future, that we’d put the building up on the mount outside of the three pilgrimage festivals.

It was a rainy day, a miserable day. The government security forces were glad of it. It muted the angry crowds just a bit. This was to be an incursion, after all. We were going to establish our central place of prayer in its proper place. And those who did not accept us, who believed they were there to replace us – both on the Temple Mount and in our relationship with G-d – were not pleased.

To the world, this innovation had been cast as a matter of freedom of worship. But it had also been cast as a response. A group of international Jewish visitors had been attacked while visiting the site. Three had been killed. The construction of the Mishkan, even temporarily, was a response to that violence. It was a statement that the Temple Mount of millennia past was still the center of Jewish worship.

I was in a small tent to the side of the Mishkan itself. I was there by myself. I was dressed in my normal clothes, but I had gone to the Mikvah – the ritual bath – only a short while before. Water cleanses toxins from our cells and brings nutrients in. I tried to feel that spiritual parallel as I dunked in the waters. But I couldn’t find it within me.

And yet, here I was. I could tell you all the offerings that would be made. And I knew, despite all the opprobrium, that I was I going to carry so many of them out. I was even beginning to understand the idea of animal sacrifice. If my friends could eat shrink-wrapped cow and call it moral, I could dedicate the life of an animal to something greater and call it holy. I might not have believed in G-d, but I understood the power of symbols and of design in a society.

And now, now it was time to don the garments and transform myself. And I found myself doing something I never expected to do. I prayed. I prayed for understanding.

I disrobed and took the roughly woven linen undergarments from the stack. As I put them on, I understood their purpose. Just as the Rabbis had told me, they were there to cover nakedness.

The undergarments on, some assistants came into the small tent. It was while they dressed me in the basic Kohen’s robes that I was blessed with the understanding I had prayed for.

It started with the finely woven and highly patterned linen tunic. As I touched it, I understood it. Made of linen, it represented human creation and effort. If I was to enter the presence of G-d, I was bringing the people’s handiwork before Him. Their labor was being dedicated to something timeless and spiritual. I had seen the craftsmen and women pouring their love into this vestment.

Next came the sash. The fabrics in it, I knew, represented G-d’s promise to us as well as His purity and honor. When I put it on, I realized that I was representing G-d to the people.

And then came the turban. The hair, grown long in the Nazir, represents human individuality. By covering it, I was minimizing my personal ego – just as the Levi does when he shaves his head.

I knew then that these are the basic roles of the Kohen’s clothes. A Kohen is to bring man before G-d and G-d before man and never put himself before the role he must play.

With this in my mind, they continued to dress me and the ideas expanded within me. The robe, worn only by the Kohen Gadol, came next. It was pure blue, representing the purity of G-d. Even the neckline was not torn – as had once been common. The idea of loss is distant to this garment. As the robe was lowered over my body I saw the hemline, with its pomegranates and bells. Fruit, in Torah, are always gifts of G-d. These pomegranates are blue, purple and scarlet; capturing His gifts of purity, honor and faithfulness to us. The gold bells on the hemline, I realized, represented G-d’s voice. The gold is divine and hearing is our way of connecting to G-d. A walking man could never control the sound of gold bells on his hem. But G-d could. And the robe has no linen, there is no place for mankind in it.

As it settled over my body, I knew that I would be representing G-d to His people. I am wrapped in divinity.

 

The ephod came next. Straps on the ephod come up to my shoulders where the names of the tribes of Israel are engraved on stones and surrounded by gold. I realize the gold once again represents G-d. But here, he is embracing the people. As I walk, I will be carrying the names of the people – embraced by G-d – on my shoulders. The text says it is a reminder (Ex. 28:12). The ephod is to remind me that I am carrying the relationship between the people and G-d on my shoulders.

The ephod doesn’t only have straps over the shoulder. It wraps around me – constraining me. According to most opinions, and the garment I’m was wearing matches this, the ephod wraps around the legs. The legs represent will, which is why angels are traditionally imagined as having no legs. I am constrained by my duty to the relationship between G-d and man.

Like the turban, the ephod constrains my individuality. It replaces my personality with the office of the Kohen Gadol. I could feel this change as well. I was becoming the job.

My assistants then lifted the breastplate of law onto my chest. They connected it to the ephod. The breastplate has the Jewish tribes inscribed on stones. Stones, I know, imply something unchanging and permanent. The stones are connected by materials of purity, honor, divine faithfulness, industry and divinity. And they are embraced by G-d’s gold. The tribes are brought together, by G-d. The text says the breastplate is there so that the High Priest can bring the names of the Children of Israel into the place of holiness – continually.

When I wear this breastplate, I am bringing the Jewish people, embraced by G-d, into timelessness.

The breastplate comes with two other unique stones, the Urim and Tumim. They roughly translate as ‘the enlightened’ and ‘the perfect’. They represent the law itself, the foundation of our people.

With these garments, my role became stronger. I am to bring the people to G-d and G-d to the people.

Finally, the headband was added. It is blue and gold – divine and pure. It says “Holy to Hashem.”

And I realized that it brought everything together. I became a message rather than a man.

 

I stepped out of that small tent. For a moment, at least, the rain had stopped. But, only meters away, a crowd held back by the police, was shouting abuse at me. But they aren’t the only ones there. I saw the Rabbis there, and the Professors. I saw the curious crowds – separated from the angry Islamic worshippers. Many in that crowd had been drawn by the oddity of this Kohen Gadol. This Kohen Gadol who was secular until just moments before.

I saw the head of the Sanhedrin then, sitting in the center of a collection of Rabbis. I hadn’t realized, until just that moment, that he was the man who came to my door. I see him, and he sees me, and he smiles. That same smile.

And I realized, just then, why I has been chosen.

On my breastplate was the tribe of Shimon. It was a tribe that was not even blessed by Moshe. It was a tribe that went off the road, engaging in acts alien to G-d’s people. But I carried them nonetheless. I was not to be Kohen of the religious Zionists or the Haredim. I was to be the Kohen Gadol of all the people. I was to bring them all before G-d, and G-d before them.

Adorned with my garments, I felt myself drifting away. I felt the presence of G-d in me. And I felt the presence of the people. The Professor of Design was gone, at least for the day.

As I brought the offerings I realized that they too capture this theme. With a bull, which represents a nation, I bring the people to G-d, one of them being offered up at the dedication of Yitzchak by his father. I bring their timebound and physical gifts up to the timeless.

With the rams, I symbolically constrain myself. They represent fear of G-d. I place myself in the first of them, laying my hands on it. And then I dip the blood of the second on my right toe, thumb and ear. I am dedicating the prime of my will (from my legs), my action (from my arms) and my obedience (from my ears), to G-d.

Finally, with the continual offering, I connect this moment to all time. I represent G-d’s timeless presence in the here and now. The offering is of a sheep. Shepherding people, with time for poetry and war, have great freedom and little regularity or order. The greatest Jewish leaders are shepherds. And yet, the G-dly is made a part of their wildness.

As they watch, I know the Professors and Rabbis alike begin to understand what is happening. They can see both the divine and the human in my garments and my actions. They can see it in my office.

I am beginning, step by step, offering by offering, to once again sew together the relationships between the Jewish people, and between the Jewish people and their G-d.

And that is how I became the secular Kohen Gadol.

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), a thriller about creating hope from war.

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