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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tetzaveh                          March 7, 2020 - 11 Adar 5780

03/06/2020 11:50:34 AM


I've never understood the fashion industry, those people are so clothes minded. My favourite way to dress is in all black; my fashion sense is second to none.  I have a jacket that's catches fire; it’s called a blazer!  A friend confided in me: "My wife only has two complaints:  nothing to wear and not enough closet space."  I always get really frustrated trying to put clothes in my wardrobe. Think I could do with some Hanger Management.

It is often said that clothes make the man; that is certainly true of the priestly caste of Kohanim in this week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh.  Of all the unique garments of the High Priest mentioned in the Torah portion, probably the easiest to picture in our minds is the breast plate.  It was decorated with twelve jewels.  We are told specifically what they were, how they were set in four rows of three and what they represented.  Twelve stones stood for the twelve tribes and the High Priest, when he stood before the altar to worship God, was obviously representing the totality of the nation of Israel.  Depending on how we look at it, however, the breastplate is either very inclusive, or it is purposefully exclusive.  If we think in terms of the tribes of Israel, then all Israel, each of the twelve tribes, is represented with a special stone.  We are all in there.  It is very inclusive.  If we think of the larger world, it isn't.  The High Priest in his worship speaks for the Jews and only seems to be speaking for the Jews.  He stands before the altar representing a particular people, but not all people.  His prayers are for a nation, not for humanity as a whole.

For some, this makes perfect sense: the religious leader of Israel is praying for his people.  But for others, this is off-putting because, as a religious leader, should the High Priest pray for all God’s people—Jew and gentile alike?  Rabbi Harold Berman notes that this was, of course, a long time ago, and things are different now. Well, actually, he claims, they are not entirely different now. Though we do universalize a lot of our prayers, there are still some prayers in which we ask for God to hear all the prayers, “of your people Israel,” or we pray for “our fellow Jews everywhere,” and depending on how we want to think of our prayer experience those expressions can seem somewhat tribal, somewhat exclusive.

Leaving the High Priest and the breastplate of several thousand years ago behind for a moment, Rabbi Berman asks us to consider whether or not we can, we should, we must pray for all humanity, or do we only pray for those that are part of our immediate tribe, so to speak?  The truth is: it isn't such a simple question.

About a decade ago, he notes, there was considerable discussion about a practice of the Mormon Church of baptizing deceased individuals as a way of ensuring that everyone to be able to go to heaven.  This not only involved people who were Christians but not Mormons, it also involved Jews, and at one point it was revealed that it included victims of the Holocaust.  Some people who heard about this were deeply offended.  How would we feel if we learned that someone had ceremonially baptized deceased members of our families?  While many were offended, we must agree that their prayers were certainly universal; praying for everyone. It just wasn’t quite as attractive in practical application as it seemed in theory.

In another instance Rabbi Berman describes, a lot of commotion was raised by the recent reintroduction of the Latin text of the Mass, which had been unused in the Catholic Church for a few decades, but is now being reintroduced in various places.  Part of that text, before the changes of Vatican II in the 1960's, spoke of the “perfidious Jews.” That's gone. What would continue as part of the Good Friday text of what is known as the Tridentine Mass includes the text: "Let us pray also for the Jews that Our Lord and God may enlighten their hearts, that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ as the savior of all men," which has not been used in the church since 1962.  Truthfully, this isn't very different from the Church's hope that other people, all over the world, will also find their way to the truth and the salvation that only come from the Church.

Like the Mormon example, it is universal.  It is praying for other people who are not part of the faith group. Are we offended by that? Well, before we get too offended, Rabbi Berman reminds us that at the end of our service we recite a prayer called Aleynu, which concludes with a text from the book of Zechariah (14:9): V'hayah Adonai l'melech al kall ha'aretz; bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad u'sh'mo echad, “God shall be King over all the earth; on that day God shall be one and God's name shall be one.”  That too is universal, and it would seem to suggest a dream and a vision that someday all the world will come and worship the same God the same way we do.

So how do we feel about all this?  Truthfully, like Rabbi Berman, I am only concerned if that prayer—theirs or ours—promotes actions that are bigoted and intolerant.  In some places, historically, they certainly have been, but in our day and age, all of us have a responsibility to make sure we show respect to one another's faith at the very least when we are interacting with them; and respect the idea of pluralism and diversity in the society in which we live.  I don't care if other people pray for me, my soul or my body, as long as they leave me alone.  Though I plan to keep reciting the Aleynu, I will keep teaching respect for others and their beliefs as well.

In our world of growing religious intolerance and rampant rising anti-Semitism, what I want most from other people is that they should be caring, loyal, faithful members of their churches or mosques or temples, whatever they may be, praying for themselves or for whomever they choose, but recognizing that everyone has a right to live and work in peace.  When I recall the priestly vestments of the High Priest of long ago, I think, like Rabbi Berman, this was his message.  He stood before the altar and offered worship on behalf of his people, with the clear notion that this was not a zero-sum game.  "Good" for us doesn't mean "bad" for someone else.  Good for us means blessings we can share, in many ways.  Each person's individual prayer and observance, makes collectively for a better world.  Hopefully, whatever the texts before us, we will eventually realize that we don't have to pray with and for everyone else to be able to offer blessings to those around us.  Rabbi Berman concludes, if we remember this, each of us in our own faith, it will be a much better world for all of us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, October 22 2020 4 Cheshvan 5781