T'tzaveh was my bat mitzvah portion . . . 50 years ago. It's hard to believe that it's been that long, and that I'm old enough to say things like that. I am told that mine was the first bat mitzvah ceremony at K.A.M. Temple (now KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation), the oldest congregation in Chicago. I was not aware of the "first" at the time, but there were very few girls in Hebrew classes, which were optional supplements to regular religious school. One year, the class consisted of fourteen boys and me. Our family did not make a big deal about the celebration. Family and friends went to our home after services for a nice luncheon that my mother prepared, and my uncle took a few photos. I had a "kids' party" that evening at a local school with snacks and dance music played on 45 rpm records on a portable phonograph. Yes, it was possible to come of age without a caterer or a DJ.
As a bat mitzvah, I did not understand the Torah portion, and I do not recall my teachers trying to explain it to me or helping me find any meaning in it. I knew it was about rules that were no longer relevant, but the words were foreign and I was simply taught to pronounce syllables that I was supposed to parrot. In retrospect, I see the entire experience as a missed opportunity.
Years later, when I read Parashat T'tzaveh as an adult, I discovered aspects of the text that could have spoken to me. I was a child who loved to sew, making some of my own clothes when I was in high school. How I wish that someone had pointed out the descriptions of the fabrics and colors and textures in the instructions for making the priestly garments for Aaron and his sons. I might have related to the "robe of the ephod of pure blue" and the "binding of woven work round about" (Exodus 28:31-32). Imagine the loveliness of the instruction:
"On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe." (Exodus 28:33-34)
Such beautiful materials and creative construction! I wish I had understood these words at that time: they could have helped me find meaning in the text as a young person.
Our portion begins with the command to kindle the ner tamid, the lamp in the Tabernacle that is to burn continually. In the Midrash, the Rabbis compared the light from the lamp to the study of Torah:
"See how the words of Torah give light to one who studies them. . . . Those who study Torah give forth light wherever they are. It is like one standing in the dark with a lamp in his hand; when he sees a stone he does not stumble, neither does he fall over a gutter because he has a lamp in his hand, as it says, 'Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path' (Psalms 119:105). . . . What is the lamp of God? The Torah, as it says, 'The commandment is a lamp, and the teaching a light' (Proverbs 6:23). (Sh'mot Rabbah 36:3).
It is our challenge and responsibility to teach Torah that gives light to those who study it, to enlighten their path in the world, and to help them bring light to others. In my decades as a congregational rabbi, I worked with many bar and bat mitzvah students. My own disappointing experience was in the back of my mind as I endeavored to help my students find meaning in the Torah portions they were assigned. Thousands of rabbis and cantors and teachers do the same for their students, making the words come alive for a new generation. Every teacher knows the joy of seeing the light go on when a student discovers something she or he didn't know before. The texts can be difficult or obscure, but the struggle to understand and interpret has been our challenge for millennia, and is a process that will continue into the future. As our Rabbis taught, "Those who study Torah give forth light wherever they are."
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
In discussing this week's parashah, Rabbi Weinberg Dreyfus highlights one of the central symbols of our tradition—the ner tamid—the eternal light. She also mentions the clothes intended to be worn by Aaron and the other priests as they fulfill their ritual duties in the Tabernacle.
What I find fascinating is that here we have two practices mentioned in the very same parashah, one of which we've rejected completely and other, which we've embraced just as literally and wholeheartedly. Part of the explanation for the rejection is that there are no longer priests who carry out the sacrificial service. Although a number of clergy continue to wear robes, these items of clothing simply cannot compare to the colorful garments accessorized with bells that are described in the portion.
Yet there's the ner tamid—what synagogue does not have an eternal light today? From Reform to ultra-Orthodox denominations, we each have them. Sure, they might all look different. At Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., ours is powered by gas. But we have all adopted this practice, imagining our house of prayer as a mikdash m'at, a mini Tabernacle.
So what can we understand from this?
This story from a colleague helps highlight the point. He was speaking with an individual about the laws of kashrut, and this person interjected and said, "Do modern Jews still really observe these laws?" The rabbi lovingly looked at him and said, "Yes, this modern Jew still does!" pointing to himself.
Just because something is old doesn't mean it is outdated. We may never know where meaning can come from. And as modern Jews, what may seem anachronistic might hold powerful symbolism. That is why the teaching of Ben Bag Bag found in Pirke Avot1 must remain our guide: "Turn the Torah over and over again, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it." Who knows, maybe in the future our descendants will be wearing garments with bells.
Pirke Avot 5:22 in Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, eds., trans., Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics (NY: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 89
Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is currently the associate rabbi of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C. She will be joining the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism in July 2015 as the director of Communities of Practice.
T’tzaveh, Exodus 27:20–30:10
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 618– Revised Edition, pp. 561–576;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 473–494