February 23, 2010
Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
I think of myself as a premature elder. I was initiated into an involuntary priesthood at a young age. Life presented me with a set of mandates that shaped my life in
ways I would never have chosen. Twice before my 24th birthday, I sat shiva. Those seven-day periods initiated me in an unbidden understanding of life’s fragility and preciousness. The wisdom of the elders fell upon me, like the blunt end of an ax, when I was still a relative girl.
I would give my life not to have had those experiences. Yet what I know as a result of them has made my life worthwhile. This is one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life, where we must hold, in one heart, vast dichotomies , which include joy and pain — sacred and profane — without that heart breaking.
Sometimes it does break. In perhaps the greatest paradox of them all, the Kotzker Rebbe said, “There is nothing so whole as the broken heart.” But oh, the broken heart! How it seethes in pain on that road to wholeness! Oy. Oy. Oy.
Parashat Tetzaveh articulates details of the preparatory rituals for the ordination of the first priests. It includes descriptions of the exquisite yarns to be woven in making the priestly garments. The ordination took seven days. I can’t help but think that my earlier seven-day periods are braided into the texts of Jewish tradition included in rabbinical education and were as much a part of my rabbinic ordination as the hands of Rabbi David Ellenson on my head when I received smicha from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2008. Rabbi Ellenson alluded to this as he blessed me under the ordination canopy.
Tamara Eskenazi, a Bible professor at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, observes the similarity between the priestly ordination ritual and the ritual welcoming the ill person back into the community in the book “Healing and the Jewish Imagination”(Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006). I find in that connection an important implication about how we become the mamlochet kohanim (the community of priests) we are biblically mandated to become, as we become elders in that community.
The connection between these initiatory rituals speaks of the delicate weaving that heals the broken heart, teasing a new tapestry out of the tattered fibers surrounding our wounds. Our falling tears moisten these frayed threads, which interlace to create a larger heart, a larger universe and a larger Deity, expanding to accommodate the truths of the new reality. Our hearts become mishkanot (dwelling places for God), capable of holding the perplexing and contradictory existential verities.
This inner smicha of the heart pushes out from our depths. It mirrors the garments needed for the external smicha and is every bit as beautiful as the cords of “gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen” (Exodus 28:15), which will hold the breastplate that will press on the high priest’s heart from without.
In the Amidah, the standing prayer, we rise before God. We meet the Holy One on weekdays, standing tall to detail our yearnings and plead for their satisfaction. We stand on Shabbat to bask in the Holy Presence, imagining the world as it should be. There is also Yeshiva, the “sitting prayer.” Here we sit and wait for God to come to us. Through meditation, study and holy listening, we attend the voice of the Beloved until it comes from our own heart. The yearning in the “sitting prayer” is from above.
God’s yearning reaches out, as well, through Rabbi Ellenson and other ordaining rabbis. It extends through their hands, as they are placed upon the heads of their ordainees. They channel God’s yearning for partners in healing the world, reaching through Moses, Joshua and all the others of the lineage that stretches to Rabbi Ellenson and his peers.
God’s yearning also comes to us in the house of shiva. Sitting for seven days, as the rituals of mourning direct us, we listen for the voices of God and of the ones we have lost. We try to hear what our lives are calling us to with this new grief. We sit, to paraphrase the mourners’ blessing, in “The Holy Place [HaMakom/The Place/a name of God] of comfort among those who remember Zion and Jerusalem” (HaMakom yenechem etchem betoch shaar avelei Zion v’Yerushalyim). We seek to discern God’s yearning as we sit in the midst of those who have walked the path of loss. They hold us in hearts that know what it means to be broken. There we are held as we listen and seek a renewed vision of HaMakom/holiness.
At the end of the week of Yeshiva, we rise from the protected cocoon to walk again in the world. Our heads are haloed with the crown of the priesthood, described in this parashah and engraved with the phrase, “kadosh l’YHVH — Holy to God.”
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual counselor. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001) and she teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Rabbi Brener is a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.