Tetzaveh D’var Torah
February 12, 2022
by Anat Shiloach
Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, my family often visited the Smithsonian museums. The museums were educational (and free), and there was always a new exhibit to see. A perennial favorite, though, was the gem gallery at the Museum of Natural History. In my memory, the space was dimly lit and hushed, and the gemstones sparkled under
dramatic lighting in their cases.
Gemstones feature in this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, as we read about the elaborate, ornate garments that the priests were instructed to wear when fulfilling their duties. The Torah provides detailed directions for constructing these garments, with an array of sumptuous materials. In 28:15-20, God commands Moses:
“You shall make a breastplate of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: Make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings.”
Regardless of what a “breastplate of decision” actually is (a topic for another day), it sounds impressive and beautiful, even today. Gemstones aren’t a trendy fad. The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan recently renovated their Hall of Gems and Minerals, and the museum expects it to be a major tourist draw. In an article in artnet, Ellen Futter, the museum president, said, “There is something truly elemental and visceral about our connection to the minerals and materials of the earth on which we live. Didn’t we all collect rocks as children?… And who among us doesn’t appreciate a spectacular gem?”
Research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology has even demonstrated that people have an innate preference for glossy surfaces, suggesting that this preference is due to an evolutionary association with the glossy surface of a body of water.
Why were the priests told to wear such eye-catching clothing, and why the gems? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, pointed out that for the most part, Judaism is a tradition of speaking and hearing, of words and not of appearances. We tend to think of our religious practice as a more cerebral endeavor, and indeed, reading further, we
learn that the twelve gemstones represent the twelve tribes of Israel, although the Torah doesn’t specify which tribe corresponds to which gem.
Naturally, this has led to rabbinic speculation about how to best match the qualities of the stones to the tribes. In solving this puzzle, the commentators focus on the symbolism of the stones, rather than on their innate beauty and appearance. Paying attention to meaning and
substance is consistent with the idea that the content of a prayer or a service is more important than the clothing that anyone involved is wearing. In fact, the Hebrew word for garment, “beged”, has the same root as the word for betrayal, “bagad,” hinting that clothing might not accurately represent the person within and might lead us astray.
The priests, though, have a special role as intermediaries between the people and God, and the text offers a clue for why they need to be clothed in such a specific way. 28:2 reads, “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” The word for dignity or honor, “kavod”, appears throughout the Torah, but it almost always refers to God. Here, it indicates that as they carry out their duties, the priests need to be dressed to dignify and honor God. “Tiferet”, the word for adornment, or beauty, appears here for the first of only three instances in the Torah. By joining it to “kavod”, the text indicates that the aesthetics of the priestly clothing are also very important.
In The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides gives this explanation:
“In order to exalt the Temple, those who ministered there received great honor, and the priests and Levites were therefore distinguished from the rest. It was commanded that the priest should be clothed properly with the most splendid and fine clothes, “holy garments for glory and for beauty” … for the multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by … the beauty of his garments, and the Temple was to be held in great reverence by all.” (Guide for the Perplexed, III:45)
Rabbi Sacks suggests that this aesthetic aspect, for the priests and for the temple, is critical for engaging people. Regardless of our rational intentions, our emotional reactions will be swayed by outward appearances.
I recently heard an interview on NPR with Dr. Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is a scientist and also an evangelical Christian. In the interview, he referred to “our greatest calling… truth, goodness, and beauty, those three transcendentals that are supposed to characterize us.”
I was surprised to hear him include beauty (along with truth and goodness) in that list. But it makes sense: an aesthetically impressive experience can elate us in a different way than something that we understand and appreciate rationally. Have you seen a sunset whose radiant golds and pinks gives you goosebumps? Have you seen (or heard) a work of art that
is so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes?
We’re limited by words to communicate, but there’s a “you know it when you see it” quality to beauty. Looking at the gems at the Natural History Museum, I wasn’t too interested in their names, or the science around their structures. Years later, what has stayed with me is the depth and purity of their colors. Similarly, beyond the symbolism of the gemstones in the priestly breastplate is the simple statement of their dazzling, colorful glossiness.
As an auditory analogy to this visual experience, Wynton Marsalis was recently quoted in the New York Times about why he likes Beethoven’s music. He said, “You don’t have to explain anything about it. I think if you have to do a lot of explaining, you’re in trouble. Music should speak for itself, and Beethoven always does.”
We no longer have the Temple and we no longer have priests dressed in intricate vestments, but we can recreate the aesthetic experience of connection with God in other ways. We might ourselves wear something special. If we’re in the sanctuary, we might admire the light coming in through the stained glass or the artistry of the ark doors. We might imagine marvels and miracles when we close our eyes. I find chanting from the scroll an elevating, aesthetic experience: the crisp black letters on parchment, the heavy silver Yad, the acoustics of the sanctuary.
Understanding Torah is fascinating and fulfilling, but adding emotional beauty to rational appreciation makes faith more powerful. Shabbat shalom.