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Tetzaveh 5776-2016

“Feeling the Pain of Others who are in Need”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Tetzvah focuses almost entirely on the holy vestments that are worn by the כֹּהֲנִים, the lay and the High Priests of Israel, as they perform the sacred service in the Tabernacle.

The four basic garments that are worn by all priests are the linen britches, the linen robe, the linen mitre (head covering of rolled linen ribbon) and the multi-colored belt worn around the priest’s waist.

The כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל, the High Priest, wore four additional garments. The אֵפוֹד, was an apron-like garment worn around the waist and the shoulders of the priest to hold the Breastplate. The Breastplate (חֹשֶׁן) housed 12 precious stones, one for each tribe, and contained the אוּרִים וְתֻמִּים, the sacred name of G-d. The High Priest also wore a robe or מְעִיל, made of wool dyed blue that had bells and pomegranates at the bottom that would make sounds when the High Priest walked. The fourth vestment, known as the צִּיץ, was a golden head plate, which had the words “Holy unto G-d” inscribed on it.

When describing the Breastplate, the Torah states that the High Priest is to wear the Breastplate on his heart when he goes into the holy part of the Tabernacle. The Torah’s description concludes with the words, Exodus 28:30, וְנָתַתָּ אֶל חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֶת הָאוּרִים וְאֶת הַתֻּמִּים, וְהָיוּ עַל לֵב אַהֲרֹן בְּבֹאוֹ לִפְנֵי השׁם, וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת מִשְׁפַּט בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל לִבּוֹ לִפְנֵי השׁם תָּמִיד, Into the Breastplate of judgment shall you place the Urim and Tumim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he comes before the L-rd; and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Children of Israel on his heart constantly before the L-rd.

Although the Breastplate appeared as square-shaped when worn by the High Priest, it was actually a rectangle, folded in half. On the outside of this folded garment were the twelve precious stones. But, in between the front and the back part of the Breastplate was the Urim and Tumim, which mean “light and innocence.” The Urim and Tumim consisted of a piece of parchment upon which the Tetragrammaton, the four letter ineffable name of G-d, was written. This extremely holy vestment had the power to communicate with heaven, as the letters with the names of the twelve tribes that were inscribed on faces of the Breastplate stones lit up, spelling out G-d’s message.

The Sforno explains that when the verse states, “And Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Children of Israel on his heart constantly before the Lord,”  it means that the High Priest must pray for the People of Israel so that they may merit to have honest judgment. The commentaries deduce from the language of the Sforno, that, in order to pray properly for the People of Israel, the High Priest has to carry the needs and pains of the People of Israel on his heart at all times.

As leaders, Moses as well as Aaron, carried the needs and pains of the People of Israel on their hearts at all times. In order to explain the special role that Moses and Aaron played on behalf of the People of Israel, it is necessary to address a major question regarding parashat Tetzaveh that is raised by almost all the commentaries.

Parashat Tetzaveh opens with the words, Exodus 27:20, וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, You shall command the Children of Israel. It is most unusual for G-d to speak to the Children of Israel, without the introductory phrase, וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, and G-d spoke to the Children of Israel, saying. Not only does parashat Tetzaveh not have this introduction, it is the one parasha in the Torah, from the time that Moses first appears in the biblical narrative, in which Moses’ name is not mentioned at all.

The Ba’al HaTurim declares that Moses’ name is missing from the parasha because Moses had declared to G-d (Exodus 32:32) that if G-d does not forgive the People of Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf, מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ, “erase my [Moses’] name from the book that You wrote.” When such an utterance is emitted from the lips of a righteous person, even though it was conditional, the request is always fulfilled, and therefore Moses’ name is omitted from this parasha.

This introduction underscores the great sense of commitment that Moses had for the people. He prayed for them to be forgiven and was totally prepared to give his entirety for them. The Talmud in Brachot 32a, explains that when Moses said, מְחֵנִי נָא, erase me, it indicates that he was prepared to give his life for the people. Moses, who always felt the weight of Israel’s suffering, carried the pains of Israel in his heart and asked the Al-mighty that they be forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf.

Aaron, the High Priest, played a similar role, with an equal sense of devotion to the people. In fact, commentators often refer to Aaron as the “heart” of the People of Israel. When the heart is healthy the entire body feels good. Aaron, who was renowned for feeling the pain of every individual in Israel, constantly prayed for them. This is what is meant when the Torah declares, “And Aaron will carry the judgment of the Children of Israel.” Though the People of Israel are subject to travail and pain, Aaron, who feels their every hurt in his heart, will pray on their behalf that G-d should relieve them of their pain and cancel their affliction.

Our commentators state that it’s not only the obligation of the great leaders of Israel to feel the pain of their fellows. In fact, every Jew, male or female, young or old is required to empathize with the pain and travails of their compatriots.

The biographical writings published about the great contemporary sage and scholar Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, describe how Reb Shlomo Zalman would sit for hours receiving people from all walks of life, who would come to relate tales of a woe and despair, and to pour out their hearts before him.

Reb Shlomo Zalman would listen carefully to the words of every visitor and feel their pain as his own. At times, when he briefly came out of his room to get a bit of fresh air, he could be heard murmuring, “Oh G-d Al-mighty, how much pain there is in this world? How is it possible to suffer to this degree? How can I sit at a table and eat, but I must eat in order to survive.”

At that moment, Reb Shlomo Zalman would sit at the table with a broken heart to eat his meal slowly, consumed by the stories of pain he had heard. After he finished eating and recited the Grace after Meals, he would take a book of Psalms in his hands and begin to recite the Psalms silently, from time to time wiping with his handkerchief the tears that flowed down his cheeks.

These are bitter times for the Jewish people, stabbings and murders continue in Israel almost daily, sometimes several times a day. Recently, we learned of the murder of a mother of six in front of her children and the stabbing of a pregnant woman. These reports have traumatized, not only the inhabitants of Israel, but the entire Jewish community.

Here in America recently, in the course of a single week, a six-year-old child in Edison, NJ was run over on Shabbat by a car driven by a drunken driver. A young Jewish woman was drowned when she had a seizure and drove her car into the river. The Manhattan community lost a beautiful “angel,” a twenty-one year old pre-med student, who went to Honduras as a volunteer to help the people and was killed in a tragic bus accident on her way to the airport to return home. Apparently, shortly before the accident, she requested to change seats with another volunteer so that she could sit next to the window to read her prayers without disturbing others. The other woman survived unscathed! And now, a brilliant young husband was killed in a horrifying crane collapse!

A well-known story is told of a loving grandmother who heard a commotion outside and said to herself, “I surely hope that it’s nothing serious!” As she walked closer to the area of the incident, she again assured herself that everything will be alright. But when she reached the site of the mishap and saw that her own grandson, Meir, had been hurt, she started screaming hysterically, “Meirkeh, Meirkeh.”

All of Israel are our children, biological offspring or not. Consequently, all Jews must wear a Breastplate on their hearts, feel the pain of their brothers, and take every measure to help reduce that pain.

Surely, it is impossible for human beings to ignore pain in any part of their bodies. After all, our people are one organic whole, and if one part is in pain, our entire being suffers.

May you be blessed.