The Grammys and the High Priest
Shabbat Tetzaveh, Feb. 15, 2019
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
I have an admission to make: I don’t watch the Grammys. I don’t watch the Oscars. I don’t watch any of the countless other awards show that are such a staple of America’s entertainment industry. It isn’t that I am an elitist, though some might think otherwise; it’s that I find these shows to be over-the-top, self-congratulating ads for yet more things to buy, collect and hoard. At best, they make us feel good about the choices we make, about our own taste and how that fits in with the rest of society. At worst, they are no more than publicity stunts.
It isn’t that movies, TV, music and other media aren’t an important part of our culture. They are, and always have been. Art, in all its forms, is an expression of the human soul. It provides diversion, escape and comfort; art stimulates our imagination and inspires us; It serves to connect people across time and distance. Art often leaves us feeling wonder and awe, and at times it moves us to tears or laughter—sometimes even both at once.
As such, art deserves recognition, as do the artists who work tirelessly to create their masterpieces.
But art and awards shows are not the same thing. More often than not, even when I used to watch, the awards shows have left me feeling empty, like eating over sweetened whipped air. Though the entertainment part may be fun—and admittedly, you can see highlights of shows you rarely get to see otherwise—what invariably the cameras and commentators focus on is the clothing people wear.
The next day, the papers and glossies are all about the clothing. Who wore what; who glittered and who bored; who was classy, and who, outrageous.
I suppose it’s all part of what Joni Mitchell called in one of her songs, “the star-making machinery.” That’s entertainment, an industry that in America alone is said to be worth close to 700 billion dollars.
A dozen or so years ago, a movie came out that was a sharp satire of this industry. Starring Anne Hathaway and the incomparable Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada is actually a smart and entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes activity at a Vogue-like high fashion magazine. How ironic, especially in light of this week’s Torah portion and its description of the clothing worn by the Priests at the Temple, that Meryl Streep’s character was named Miranda Priestly. Priestly is the goddess of the fashion industry, and if maybe not actually the goddess, then at least the High Priestess.
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20—30:10) is part of the lengthy description of the materials and designs used in the construction of the Tabernacle in the Sinai Wilderness. At first reading, it seems repetitious and even boring. Compared to the breathtaking and grandiose visions of Pharaoh’s Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Ten Commandments, the narrative in this portion is downright minimalist: So many yards of this, so many pounds of that. In explaining what God wants Moses to do, no detail is omitted, and in fact is repeated several times, just to make sure. “You got that Moses? Let’s go over it one more time.”
Lost in all these details is one thing, however: The High Priest himself. He might as well be a mannequin. The man who is about to become priest, in fact, disappears. All aspects of his prior being—his personality, his qualities, his features—are of little or no importance in the narrative. His very identity seems to be taken away from him; at the entrance to the Tabernacle he is washed in water, physically and symbolically stripped of anything he might have been prior to this moment. Then, layer by layer, garment by garment, the priestly clothing is placed upon him, redefining him in light of his new role.
In this new role, the Priest becomes part of the Sacrificial ritual. He is brought forth to the Tent of Meeting; Moses lays his hands on Aaron’s head, much as Aaron himself, as High Priest, will soon do to the animals he will be offering as sacrifice to God.
If the clothes worn by the stars at the Grammys and Oscars are meant to display their bodies, the High Priest’s garments are meant to hide his. The show isn’t about him; it’s about the role he plays—not in a staged movie or play, but rather in the very personal, very real and extremely meaningful interaction that must exist between God and the People of Israel.
For despite the beauty and riches associated with the priest’s clothing, and despite the detailed instructions given for creating these garments, the focus isn’t on the clothing. Yes, over his fancy turban the High Priest wears a gold tiara, but it isn’t the gold that matters. It’s the words engraved into it: Kodesh La-Adonai, “Holy unto God.” The priestly garments were created of the most expensive yarns and interwoven with the rarest colors. Yet the real message of this portion isn’t about the riches on display. It isn’t about the twelve precious stones embedded in the breastplate that the High Priest wears over his robe.
It’s about the words engraved upon them.
Carved into the gems were the names of the twelve Tribes of Israel. One stone per tribe. No stone is bigger than its neighbor, none richer or poorer, each set in its own gold frame. As the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, that’s what was upon his heart; that was his role: to bring a memory of the Children of Israel before God, and to bring back to them God’s message, God’s word.
Ultimately, beyond the glitter and the gold, Tetzaveh is really about the relationship between God and Israel. Imagery is important, and as such no expense was spared in creating the High Priest’s garments. Seeing is believing, after all. Yet what really stands out in this story is not the brilliance of the gold, nor the glory of the priest himself, but rather: ordinary words; the everyday pleas and requests of the people, the prayers and petitions which it was his task and duty to bring up to God.
In the Hollywood movie, the devil may have worn Prada. But in Tetzaveh we find the truth behind the saying that God is in the details.
Unlike the clothing worn at the Oscars and Grammys, the function of Priest’s clothing isn’t to make him special; rather, it’s about the people he represents. Like the Tent of Meeting—glorious but in fact only a tent, built to represent God’s Presence and to be home for God’s Covenant with the People of Israel—so is the Priest’s clothing only symbolic of the function played by the person who wears it: A spokesman for humanity and for God.
May we find God’s glory in every detail of our lives, and may God’s holiness be engraved not only upon our clothing, but on our hearts, in our souls and in the good work we do.
© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman