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Parshat Tetzaveh 2018
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” That apocryphal sentence purportedly uttered in 1919 by a young boy to his hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, after Jackson had allegedly admitted throwing baseball games for money, has become the classic line of disillusionment. The ultimate disappointment when a hero of ours is exposed as not only human but deeply flawed as well.
Are we naïve enough to utter such a sentence today. Do we still have heroes with such higher standards of morality? Actually, I have thought it, in one or two of the #MeToo cases of writers allegedly acting immorally. I was disappointed, but I can’t say I was totally shocked.
Would any of us even think of uttering such a sentence about a politician? Are there any politicians today still on a pedestal (aside from Benny Begin)? That’s a rhetorical and totally ridiculous question. It is withdrawn.
What brings up these thoughts is the juxtaposition of the news headlines these past weeks, months and years, and the emphasis in today’s parsha on the High Priest’s vestments. To be sure, the mishkan, the tabernacle, is a holy place built of gold and silver and pelts and fine woven materials. But the clothing of the High Priest? He’s just a man. There is another aspect which actually answers the question, according to Rabbi Sara Bassin.
The High Priest’s official garb was to be made by Bezalel and Aholiav, the same two men who were filled with the spirit of divine wisdom when they were entrusted with building the Mishkan. In other words, the clothing of the High Priest was suffused with the same holiness and divinity as the venue in which he served.
Furthermore, we are told again and again that the building of the Mishkan was made possible by the donations, the terumot that the people gave of their own free will. Not only for the edifice but also for the clothing. This means that the people had literally invested their time, possessions and efforts in the building of the mishkan and the clothing of the High Priest. Shouldn’t they expect the priests who wear these clothes to live up to the high purpose of the office?
This is the dilemma. We intuitively understand that the person invested in the vestments is or should be at least as worthy as the clothing he is wearing because they are – in this case – holy. We expect a Supreme Court justice wearing the cloaks of the court, to be fair and honest and very well versed in the law.
If the person wearing the clothing is not worthy, the result is a form of cognitive dissonance. We see the breastplate and other paraphernalia and we know what they represent, yet we may also know that the person inside this suit of divine armor is basically small minded, a disgrace to his clothing and his position.
Yet we also have an obligation to honor the clothing – the position that the person wearing that clothing represents. We see this indirectly in an event that we read in the book of Vayikra.
The event is the sudden death of two of Aharon’s sons. They brought a “foreign fire” to the altar – either they were drunk or they offered a sacrifice at the wrong time or in the wrong way. And we see that they were consumed by fire. But not the clothes. The clothes remained. This, according to the midrash, shows that the clothes bear the respect if the wearer does not attain the necessary level.
Whether we are for or against a leader, or a chief rabbi or any rabbi for that matter or a police official, we feel let down and duped by bad behavior. And I am not accusing any of the political or religious leaders of any wrongdoing unless and until the courts have had their say.
What I am saying is that even if we pretend to be cynics, deep down we are hurt, insulted by unworthy behaviors perpetrated by those who are our office bearers. We know that they are human. We know that because of their position they are exposed to temptations not given to mere mortals. But we still hope that they are worthy enough of the vestments of their position to actually behave better than we might in the same situation.
Because if they – our supposed heroes – don’t behave morally, why should the rest of us? After all, if the people on top can get special dispensations so should others. As Guy Rolnik wrote last week, why can’t a school principal take presents from a millionaire and then make decisions that benefit only that person’s child? Why can’t regulators, such as in the health ministry, take money from large companies like Philip Morris and then pass regulations that allow Philip Morris to sell its cigarettes without paying full taxes?
This all traces back to the High Priest’s vestments. As Aviva Zornberg wrote, “Ultimately, it is not only the [clothing] that is to be “Holy to God,” but its wearer. If the dissonance between vestment and wearer is palpable… the trappings become hollow.”
If the trappings become hollow, we lose respect for them, for the position, for what they represent. That is a loss for us all.
And the solution is not to expect less of our leaders and our heroes. In the short run that’s the easy way out. In the long run, the result will be expecting less of ourselves as well. And that should not be an option.
And now to conclude with something completely different, this week we celebrate Purim, the holiday of costumes, masks and turning the tables. May we all enjoy the holiday and hope that all our enemies meet a fate similar to that of Haman. Happy Purim and