Tetzave continues the theme of last week’s parsha — instructions for the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, and its furnishings. Last week we read about the sanctuary tent and the ritual objects in it. This week’s reading deals with the kohanim, priests, who will serve in the sanctuary.
While all the kohanim were to wear special garments when they performed their priestly functions, the Torah’s focus is on the elaborate vestments to be made for Aaron, the kohen gadol (high priest), “for dignity and adornment,” befitting the principal officiant for the worship of the God of Israel.
Aaron’s vestments were complex, made of rich materials, gold, and precious stones. Particularly striking was the ephod, a long vest worn on top of a tunic to which was attached the hoshen mishpat, the breastplate of decision, which contained the urim and tumim, a device of some sort used for determining the will of God.
The Torah tells us that when the ephod was made, it was to have two lazuli stones placed on the shoulder pieces, each engraved with the names of six of the tribes of Israel, “stones for remembrance of the Israelite people.” Similarly, the breastplate was to contain 12 stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes “for remembrance before the Lord at all times.”
Just what does it mean to say that Aaron was to bear these stones for remembrance of the Israelite people before the Lord? Certainly God didn’t need to be reminded of His people. Rather, they were reminders for Aaron, and for the high priests who would follow him, of what it means to be a religious leader.
The high priest wore the names of the tribes, symbolizing all the people, on his shoulders and over his heart. In contemporary usage, the heart is the seat of love, and the shoulders bear the burden of responsibility. Aaron’s role was thus to encompass both love and responsibility, compassion and authority.
To be a Jewish leader, you have to love the Jewish people, because, from the time of Moses and Aaron until today, sometimes they will drive you crazy. But love isn’t enough, because sometimes love is blind. Leadership is also about responsibility, about being able to say, “Yes, I love you, but what you’re doing is wrong; you have to return to the correct path.” It’s a difficult but necessary balancing act. Leaning too far in one direction creates alienation, too far in the other creates chaos.
When Aaron entered the Mishkan, the sanctuary, to stand before God, he bore the names of the tribes of Israel to remind himself that his role was both to care for the Jewish people and to seek God’s forgiveness and blessing for them, and also to teach God’s commandments to them so they might remain on the path of righteousness and justice. And ever since, the religious leaders of Israel have been reminded of their true task — representing the people before God and representing God before the people.