This week, I want to talk about Purim – but I also want to talk about whether the messages of Purim are still relevant in a Jewish world that is no longer in exile. In fact, I want to contrast the Megillah with the Torah portion of Tetzaveh – this week’s reading.
Let’s start with a brief explanation of the Megillah – from a geopolitical perspective. I’m assuming you’re already somewhat familiar with the story. If not, pick up a Megillah – it’s a fun and fast read until you get to the last chapters, which get kind of boring.
So, after the Vashti episode (that’s early in the story), Achashverosh distributes the following message throughout his empire: ” every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”
This is, needless to say, an odd message. Sure, he had family problems and decided that cracking down on wives was the only reasonable response to them. And yes, some Persian emperors (in particular our suspected Achashverosh had some serious family problems). But why does he include the bit about speaking your own language?
The reason is that the early Persian empire wasn’t like previous empires. In fact, it is quite different than even some present day empires. Where China is doing its best to slowly erase Mongolian and other ethnic languages and cultures, the Persians didn’t just suppress the locals like the Babylonians or Assyrians. Instead, the Persians appointed native kings as Satraps and they allowed the conquered people’s lives to continue just as before – only taxes were paid to Persia instead of to the previous rulers (Persia and Medea themselves were tax free – which was probably why so many Jews lived there).
This satrap-based system was held together by local Persian garrisons and travelling auditors known as the “Eye of the King.” A great came.
The goal was to focus on what they cared about – not domination per se, but cash.
So when Achashverush passed a law that applied across all provinces, he added another rule “that every man should… speak according to the language of his people.”
He was basically saying, “I just passed a universal law, but I want to make extra sure I’m not encroaching on your way of life.”
It was core to the structure of the whole operation as setup by Cyrus the Great.
This is important because the Jews don’t really fit in this sort of system. Jews are a problem. Sure, at the beginning of the story, they’re disappearing. We can see it in their names. Mordechai, the leader of the people, is named ‘Mordoc lives’. Marduk is the name of a highly prominent Babylonian god. He was the equivalent of the Greek Apollo – or perhaps Zeus. The famous Cyrus Cylinder describes Cyrus the great as having been chosen by Marduk.
Mordechai’s own lineage had clearly Jewish names, but Mordechai does not. For her part, Esther had a Jewish name. But she also had a very non-Jewish name – Esther, after Astarte, the goddess of, well, stuff you don’t go into too much with your children.
So, the Jewish people were on the verge of extinction without any help from Haman.
But as long as they existed, they posed a problem for the empire. As Haman put it: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the King’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them.”
In other words, the Jews have slipped through the cracks. They don’t fall within any of the geographic satrapies and so they don’t keep the local laws. They also don’t keep the King’s laws.
They aren’t a part of the system and so they threaten the design.
This actually reminds me of a time I was cornered in a laundromat by a guy who was angry at the Jews for not getting with the program. We had an interesting discussion which was really related to the Megillah. I did a video about that a while ago.
In the immediate sense, their ‘satrap’ Mordechai refuses to bow to the viceroy Haman himself – showing the people to be entirely outside the law.
The obvious solution for the King is to eliminate them. They can potentially undermine the entire Empire because they don’t fit with how the empire has been constructed.
The world needs consistency, after all.
In a way, from the Empire’s perspective, Haman is right.
But after a clever and divinely inspired turn of events, which emphasizes the value of this outsider people, Mordechai is promoted to Haman’s position.
When the next message is sent out, it is sent “unto every province according to the writing thereof, and unto every people after their language, and to the Jews according to their writing, and according to their language.“
The Jews achieved the status of a nation, despite not having a land. They are specially called out, for a unique role.
But how did they suddenly fit?
In fact, they became the exception that strengthened the Empire. Instead of the occasional “eye of the King” or Persian garrisons mistrusted by the locals, Achashverosh suddenly had an entire people dispersed and living among the various nations. Morechai was a microcosm of this when he understood the language of Bigthan and Teresh and realized they were planning to assassinate the King. He wasn’t of their people, but he understood what they were saying. The Jewish network was in full force and the Empire was strengthened as a result.
This is why they have to be told they could defend themselves. Before, they knew they had no place. Now, they know they have a purpose and some right to survival.
At the end of the story, the King raises taxes. It is a reflection of the Jews’ new position. The dispersal and loyalty of the Jews has strengthened the Empire and thus Achasverosh’s ability to collect tribute.
This story became a template for so much of our history.
We find ourselves dispersed around the world and we find a way to make our exceptionalism work for the powers in the world – whether G-d or earthly Kings. If we don’t accomplish this, we suffer – or perhaps simply disappear.
In a way, the Purim story is providing a template for life in the diaspora. How do you get by, dispersed to the four corners of the world?
But I don’t think the Purim story provides much of a template for a people that has returned home.
For that template, this week’s Torah portion is far more fitting. This week’s portion is about the Kohen (the priest’s) clothing. It would seem to be one of those extremely boring readings, but it really isn’t. Clothing can tell us a lot about a man. And for a people held up as a Kingdom of Priests, the clothing of a priest can tell us a lot about who we are supposed to be when we are in our home.
To set the stage we need to understand a bit more about the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the materials used in it.
As we covered last week, the Mishkan’s design is a literal representation of G-d dwelling within the people; it captures our mutual values, investments and covenants.
It is a nexus of the finite and infinite.
But despite the architecture, we can’t just walk up to the Mishkan and say: “Dude, I can see forever from here.”
It doesn’t just sit there. No, the Mishkan is a happening place.
And it is the Kohanim who make it happen.
And for this job, they can’t just show up in their civvies.
Back in my day, young management consultants would always wear a suit. It not only honored the firm and the client, it made the kid in the suit feel like he fit the role.
Likewise, Moshe is told to make the clothes for honor and for glorification. But the text doesn’t say whose honor and whose glorification.
The reason is because the clothes honor G-d and the people while making the Kohen himself feel like he fits the role.
I’m going to digress for a bit. We need talk materials in order to understand the clothing they are being used in. We’re not talking fine Italian leather or alpaca wool, though – The Torah has some other things in mind.
First, we’ve got gold. As we’ve discussed before, it represents the divine.
Then, we’ve got techelet, or sky-blue. Up until the 1960s, when we stuck some monkeys and dogs into orbit, there was nothing dead in the sky. It was a place without loss. So blue represents purity from loss or death.
In Bamidbar (Chapter 4), we have the various colors used to cover things. Blue can cover everything but the ashes and the tools of the offerings. Why not those things? Because blue represents purity from loss and ashes don’t.
Next is purple. In Bamidbar, purple covers the ashes of the offerings – the part blue can’t cover. As was common in the ancient world, this color represents honor.
How about the scarlet – or Tola’at Shani? When the people collected the Manna, some saved it – worried there wouldn’t be more. The Tola’at, or worms, ate their Manna. It taught them trust in G-d, but it also reinforced G-d’s ongoing investment in the people. This concept of trust and investment is seen in the cycles of Shabbat, Shmita (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee). Shani implies repetition, or a cycle.
Tola’at Shani, or scarlet, represents this cycle of trust and investment. This is why, in Bamidbar, it covers the bread and utensils of the divine table – the signs of G-d’s investment in us. And, of course, it has a connection to the Ma’an itself.
Finally, we have sheish, or linen. Linen is a material which humans grow and then process. The word ‘sheish’ means six, recalling the six days of work. As far as fabrics go, this is the closest representation of our human effort. Sheish Mashzar, or fine woven linen, just reinforces the human hand in the material.
So: gold is divinity, blue is purity, purple is honor, scarlet is the cycle of trust and investment and linen is human industry.
Aaron, our young management consultant, is somehow selected as the Kohen Gadol.
“What,” you may ask, “Makes him qualified.”
We know the definition of a Kohen from the giving of the Ten Commandments at Har Sinai. A Kohen draws close to G-d. In a way, he meets G-d.
So why choose Aaron? Well, Aaron is a very bendy fellow. He does what others ask, he doesn’t put himself in the middle, he isn’t focused on his own pride.
Unlike Moshe, he doesn’t argue with G-d. He somehow works for both G-d and his brother without any argument or dispute – despite his brother clearly not being 100% on board with G-d’s plan.
So Hashem asks Aaron to go to Moshe, he goes. The people ask him to make a calf, he makes it. He is called a ‘pursuer of peace’ for precisely this reason, he is so eager not to fight that he sometimes fails to stand up.
So long as the wiggliness is guided, this is an excellent attribute in a Kohen. Just like a management consultant, a Kohen doesn’t represent himself. His own ego is supposed to be minimized. He represents the firm.
The Kohen’s ephod, the first of the garments, helps with this whole ego minimization thing.
The ephod has straps that go up to the shoulders where the names of the tribes are inscribed on stones and embraced by gold.
As the Kohen walks, he is carrying the names of the people – embraced by G-d – on his shoulders (Ex. 28:12). Why?
The text says:
וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁמוֹתָם לִפְנֵי יְקוָק, עַל-שְׁתֵּי כְתֵפָיו–לְזִכָּרֹן.
Aaron shall bear their names before the Hashem upon his two shoulders as a reminder.
The ephod reminds the Kohen that he is carrying the relationship between the people and G-d on his shoulders.
The ephod doesn’t only have straps, it wraps around the Kohen – constraining him. According to most opinions, the ephod wraps around the legs. The legs represent will, which is why angels are traditionally imagined as having no legs. Yaacov, the most willful of forefathers, only draws up his legs right before he dies.
Using the ephod as a guide, not only does the Kohen carry the relationship on his shoulders, he is constrained by it. The relationship constrains him even as he is responsible for holding it up. This is almost definition of responsibility.
From the Ephod we can see that the first responsibility of a Kohen is to dedicate himself to carrying the timeless relationship between Hashem and people upon his shoulders.
Next, we have the breastplate of law (חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט).
It has the Jewish tribes inscribed on stones. Stones imply something unchanging and permanent. This time each tribe stands alone.
The stones are connected by materials of purity, honor, trust, industry and divinity. But they are also embraced by G-d’s gold.
So G-d embraces the people and the people are wrapped up in these attributes so they can come before Hashem.
But this is the חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט. The Breastplate of Law.
We are embraced in this way, we wrap ourselves up in this way, through of our laws.
Our laws enable us overcome decay and loss and to draw close to Hashem. They enable us to being a Kingdom of Priests – with a governing legal system.
Finally, the חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט is placed on the heart – the source of blood that gives us physical potential.
What is the job of this garment then?
The text says:
וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט, עַל-לִבּוֹ–בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ: לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי-יְקוָק, תָּמִיד
And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goes in unto the holy place, for a reminder before Hashem continually.
The breastplate is there so that the high priest can bring the names of the Children of Israel into the place of holiness – continually. He brings the Jewish people, embraced by G-d, into timelessness.
The message of this second garment is that the Kohen’s potential, his heart, is dedicated to carrying the people to holiness.
His shoulders are dedicated to carrying the relationship, his heart to carrying the people.
The third garment is the מְעִיל (meil). The robe. The מְעִיל is made entirely of תְּכֵלֶת – and it is not torn.
תְּכֵלֶת is the color of the sky; there is no death in the sky.
The מְעִיל symbolizing a reality without loss, impurity or destruction – this is why it is not torn.
At its bottom, earthward, the מְעִיל has pomegranates and gold bells.
Fruit, in Torah, are always gifts of G-d. The pomegranates are blue, purple and scarlet; capturing His gifts of purity, honor and investment. Finally, it has gold bells. Hearing is our way of connecting to G-d.
A walking man could never control the sound of gold bells on his hem.
But Hashem can.
These bells and pomegrates are towards the bottom, they are earthward.
In this way, the robe represents, and even ‘speaks’ for G-d.
Note – there is no linen. This garment represents G-d, not humanity.
The text says:
וְהָיָה עַל-אַהֲרֹן, לְשָׁרֵת; וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי יְקוָק, וּבְצֵאתוֹ–וְלֹא יָמוּת.
And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and the sound thereof shall be heard when he goes in unto the holy place before Hashem, and when he comes out, that he die not.
The third job of a Kohen is to wrap himself in divinity and continually listen to the voice of Hashem so that he can survive before Him. At Har Sinai we had the idea of Yiphratz – of holiness exploding within the people. Well, if you wrap yourself in G-dliness then you can survive the experience.
So far we have three garments. The Kohen is weighed down and constrained b the relationship through the Ephod. The Kohen brings the people before Hashem with the Breastplate and the Kohen is wrapped in lossless divinity with the Meil.
Finally, we have the צִּיץ (the headband). It is worn on the forehead and on it is written קֹדֶשׁ לַיקוָק.
The text says:
וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-עֲוֺן הַקֳּדָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר יַקְדִּישׁוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְכָל-מַתְּנֹת קָדְשֵׁיהֶם; וְהָיָה עַל-מִצְחוֹ תָּמִיד, לְרָצוֹן לָהֶם לִפְנֵי יְקוָק.
Aaron shall bear the burden of the holies, which the children of Israel shall hallow with all their holy gifts; and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before Hashem.
This headband, of gold and blue, brings it all together. It is pure and divine and it marks the Kohen as ‘Holy to Hashem’. But it does more than that.
The Kohen is to bear the עֲוֺן, the spiritual burden of the people’s holiness on his mind. Avon is normally translated as sin – but I see it as the burden of sin. It is the thing that comes after the sin itself.
Why, here, does holiness have a burden? The text explains it. He is carrying the people’s gifts. He is not free, he is constrained as a messenger of the people’s substantial investment in the divine relationship.
With the headband, the Kohen represents all the previous garments in one. He is Holy to Hashem, as with the Meil. He is carrying the people’s investment, and thus representing them before G-d. And he is carrying the burden of the relationship between G-d and man.
This is the job of the Kohen Gadol. Bring man before G-d, bring G-d before man, and minimize your own role in that relationship.
Of course, the Kohen Gadol isn’t the only Kohen. The clothing of the regular Kohanim reinforces this message.
There is a tunic of highly patterned linen; representing human production and creativity.
There is a turban. It covers the hair and thus minimizes the ego of the individual.
And there is the sash. It is made of many colors – representing the divine gifts of purity, honor and the cycle of trust.
The High Priest wears these same garments as a sort of base layer of symbolism.
Finally, there is a poor-quality linen undergarment. It doesn’t symbolize anything, but serves to hide the biological wastefulness of the Kohen himself. It brings him closer to the lossless reality of the divine.
The clothes are defining the man. Rather than being an enabler of G-d (or Achashveirosh) in the Diaspora, the priest is an enabler of the divine relationship – and a minimizer of himself.
The clothes aren’t the end of this though.
Our management consultant actually has to do the work.
This reading includes a few offerings.
First, there’s a bull. Bulls represent nations. In this case, we offer the blood, inner fats and purifying organs of the bull. These represent the potential, endurance and purity of the Jewish people.
In other words, the timeless Jewish people are connected to G-d through this offering.
Next, rams are offered. With Isaac’s sacrifice, the ram is a substitute which also represents fear of G-d and the subservience of our will to Him. The ram serves the same purposes here.
The first ram represents the Kohanim. They lay their hands on it, putting themselves into it. And then they sacrifice it – dedicating themselves to G-d, like Isaac himself.
The Kohanim dip the blood of the second ram on their right big toe, thumbs and ears. They thus signal that the prime of their will (from the feet or legs), of their action (from the thumbs) and influence (from the ears), will be dedicated to Hashem. They constrain themselves with the fear of G-d.
By waving unleavened and oiled bread – representations of human labor and purification – before Hashem, the Kohen shows that they are constrained because they represent the people.
The altar itself is then sanctified through sin offerings. Through sin offerings even our failings can be made into positives. We thus prepare our imperfect reality for the presence of G-d.
Finally, G-d Himself is brought into the picture through the continual, and thus timeless, offerings. Sheep enable their keepers – who are often nomads – great freedom. By making them part of this offering, we can see that the timelessness of the divine is brought in, despite the flexibility of the world it is entering.
Put this all together, and you’ve got a Kohen both in dress and in deeds.
To remember the whole thing, just keep in mind the three themes.
The Kohen’s will is constrained.
The Kohen brings the people into G-d’s world.
And the Kohen brings G-d into ours.
We have two models then. The Purim model speaks to our lives outside our land. But this parsha, as uninspiring as it may seem, speaks to our aspirations within it.
We’ve never gotten the living in our land thing right. In close to a thousand years of self-rule, we’ve only had a few decades that have been reasonably good. Arguably, our modern state has had more success in its seven decades than all of Ancient and Classical Israel combined. This despite all the problems we have.
So what did we get wrong? Well, I think we pursued the wrong goals. The goal is Kohen isn’t the military success of David. It isn’t the lavish spending of Shlomo. It isn’t the anarchy of the early tribes and judges or the corruption of the later Kings. It isn’t the violence of the Chashmonaim or even the obstinance of the Roman rebels.
The job of our nation, of our people, to be an interface. We aren’t here to play ourselves up, to worship our own abilities, to pursue glory or even wealth. We are here to be an interface – to bring man before the timeless G-d, to bring G-d before man and to be burdened by the weight of that relationship. We don’t play ourselves up. We minimize ourselves in service of something greater.
Purim is about another life, another world. We drink in celebration of our survival. But a Kohen can’t drink on the job.
A Kohen has more important things to do.
So enjoy your Purim. But afterwards remember where we are the job we have yet to accomplish.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.