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Retailoring our "Hold Garments" 

Zohar Atkins | Parshat Tetzaveh 5775

Zohar Atkins (Bronfman ’05) is a first year rabbinical school student at JTS, where he is pursuing his Bronfman-summer-inspired dream of becoming a life-long teacher and student of Torah.  After college, Zohar spent four years reading for a doctorate in Theology at Oxford, where he wrote on the relationship between ontology and ethics in the thought of Heidegger and his critics, Levinas and Adorno.  Zohar’s academic and personal interests converge on questions relating to the meaning, stakes, and limits of “spirituality" and “poetry” in a technological age.  He is passionate about reading different canons through and against each other, as well as about putting text-study in dialogue with experiential, religious and artistic education.  Some of his poems can be found here and here. Email him at


“And you shall make for your brother Aaron

garments-of-holiness (bigdei hakodesh)

for the sake of dignity [divine presence]

and splendor [divine radiance].”

Exodus 28:2

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ

לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃


This week’s Torah portion is kind of like the Vogue Magazine, Spring Edition, for priests. In our portion, called Tetzaveh (Exodus 27.20-30.10) you can find the latest (commanded and commanding) styles for sacred-ware (bigdei hakodesh): sashes and ephods of blue, purple, and crimson yarn, breast plates with lazuli, carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, and beryl, jacinth, agate, crystal, and jasper; and of course, head-dresses of fine linen.


The exhaustive sartorial descriptions give us the sense that without the proper accoutrements, the priestly function would be impossible.  When it comes to a job as significant as sacrifice, you are what you wear.  Clothes are central tothe spectacle of holiness.  And, whether or not we ourselves like the baroque taste of our ancient ancestors, it is clear from the text, that, in principle, aesthetics is to play a crucial role in the spiritual task of the Israelites.


Nevertheless, Tetzaveh is hardly an easy read, bordering on boring.  If one approaches the Torah with what Bible scholar, James Kugel calls, “a hermeneutics of omni-significance,” (the view that nothing in the Torah is superfluous, and that, by extension, the Torah harbors in itself infinite meanings), then one might be tempted to speculate that God intentionally gave us a boring parsha to instruct us in the spiritual art of patience. A more sophisticated version of such an argument might draw on the work of British psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, or the journalist Rebecca West, who, in her pot-stirring coverage of the Nuremberg Trials, describes how her boredom during the trials forced her to take an enlightening walk around the bombed-out German countryside, enabling her to approach the historical scene from a different, less official angle; or else, one might draw on the notorious and polarizing German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who wrote in 1929 that “profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog…reveals beings as a whole” (“What is Metaphysics?” in Basic Writings, pp. 99).  Each of these thinkers urge us not only to endure boredom, but to embrace it as a blessing in disguise, claiming that it is from a place of originary boredom that we are prompted to engage ourselves and our surroundings non-habitually and insightfully.  Meanwhile, it is our absorption in techniques of distraction, they claim, that keeps us from being our best, most alive selves.  Like the Hasidic masters of Jewish tradition, these authors want us to understand that our spiritual task requires us to work with what’s most difficult and seemingly profane in our lives in order to break through to—and ultimately release—its essential holiness.  â€œBeing stuck” and “awakening” are not ultimately opposites—if only we could recognize this!  (On this paradoxical topic, see the tale of Rebbe Nachman that Rav Mish discusses on the “Text and City” blog here as well as this classic poem of Adrienne Rich z’’l, “Power” ).


Having entertained the above, however, let me suggest a different possibility: Tetzaveh is not so much a boring parsha as it is an uncomfortable one.  The reason may be that the Judaism we have come to know is a Judaism that placed a ban on graven images, and that punished our ancestors for finding spiritual meaning in a golden calf.  Monotheism, so it seems to those of us who live in the shadow of the great rationalist and negative-theologian Maimonides means iconoclasm, meaning that all visual imaginings of God must be read away, reduced to allegory.  The one, true God is beyond shape and form (ayn lo d’mut haguf, v’ayno guf - “he has no image, nor a body”, we sing every Friday in Yigdal.)  Or as the punch line to an old Jewish joke goes, taking this theology to its logical conclusion: “There’s only one God and we don’t believe in him.”  In short, is there not a core tension between the striking visuality of the Tabernacle and priestly vestments on the one hand, and the more contemporary Jewish view–no doubt influenced by Deuteronomy–that what matters is less the visual event itself than our ability to tell the story (a point we rehearse and re-affirm each year during Pesach)?  The very fact that I am asking the question gives the answer (yes).  And of course, there is a hard-hitting irony in reading about visual marvels that no longer exist.  The very fact that what has survived is the litany of what the priests wore, and not the clothes themselves, testifies to an historical arc in which words ultimately defeat things.  The vanishing of precious and semi-precious stones from our religious “life-world” (to borrow the phrase of Husserl)  has forced us to read our texts about them under a foreign light.  The horizon of concern through which we must greet parshat Tetzaveh, then, is first and foremost a horizon of breach, rift, distance.  We read the words bigdei kodesh, and even translate them into English, and yet we are still far from understanding what these words say, what they said, and what they give us to say.  Yet perhaps, like boredom, the alienation one can feel when encountering a text like Tetzaveh offers training in the spiritual way.  For starters, perhaps the strangeness of Tetzaveh–like any difficult text–can teach us to see strangeness as an essential condition of our being in-the-world, and can teach us to place ourselves in question.  What is truly strange is not the splendor of the priestly garments described in the Bible, but our own, estranged relationship to the symbolic power of priesthood.  We might begin by asking ourselves: Who today is a priest and why?  How do our contemporary priests safeguard, in the sense of “protect us from the danger of” the divine–and what does occupy the status of “divine” in our society?  Finally, what do terms like “purity” and “impurity” mean today?  Are they totally irrelevant without sacrifices and without a Temple?  And what, finally, are the contemporary cultural markers that we might consider bigdei kodesh (holy garments)?


Having acknowledged the abyss between us and the text, let me conclude with a Midrashic move back towards intimacy with it.  First, like all good midrashim, we need a question, something must “bother” us.  


“And you [Moses] shall make for your brother Aaron garments-of-holiness (bigdei hakodesh) for the sake of dignity [divine presence] and splendor [divine radiance].” (Exodus 28:2)


וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃


Here are my three questions (though no doubt they have been asked by many others, too):  Why is Moses specifically required to make clothes for his brother, Aaron, and what is the referent and force of “l’khavod u’litifaret” (for dignity and for splendor)?  For whose dignity?  For whose splendor?  Aaron’s?  God’s? Moses’s own?  The people’s?  The garments themselves (a la art-for-art’s-sake)?  And what, finally, is the relationship between holiness, dignity, and splendor?  I want to answer each of these questions with one answer, inspired by the Jewish-French thinker Emmanuel Levinas and the medieval commentator Ramban.  Moses’s act of clothing his brother is an ethical act par excellence.  The holiness of these garments derives not from their composition alone, but rather from the fact that they are given.  One cannot make clothes of holiness for oneself, one can only make them for another.  In philosophical language, that is to say, holiness is not an innate property inhering in things themselves, but is rather the  mode in which they appear.  Holiness is only a possibility of appearing, not an established fact, and it can only come to pass through an act of generosity.  Were it otherwise, anyone might have made the garments. But God specifically singles out Moses–v’asitah–and you shall do it.  The dignity and splendor referred to in the verse, then, may similarly be read as referring to the primordial act of Hesed (loving care) on Moshe’s part, albeit in response to a divine command.  Moses–do this thing for your brother–to show me, yourself, him, and the rest of the Israelites, that it’s not about you.  Do it so that my beauty and glory will show in every given thing.  Do it to teach future readers that sanctity is not merely a hypostasized costume, a totem for the naive, or a fetish for the needy, but the halo of making room for others, of empowering them to glow, and sharing in their splendor.

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