According to modern academic scholarship of the Bible – the critical approach embraced by progressive Judaism in its centers of higher learning – the Torah is made up of separate literary strands, written in different times and places, and holding different ideologies about ancient Jewish life. Developed from the period of the kings through the first exile, these strands were redacted together into what the contemporary Israeli Bible scholar, Israel Knohl, calls “the divine symphony,” which, according to Knohl, lays the foundation for Judaism as a pluralistic tradition (The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices, 2003).
In this week’s parashah, T’tzaveh, we see the P-strand in full force. P, which stands for Priestly code, was likely composed by the priests’ heirs to Temple authority during the Babylonian exile after the defeat of the Judean kingdom in 586 B.C.E. Understood this way, we, as the biblical readers of today, might appreciate P’s representation of priest and Temple as a mythic argument for how the exiles can see through and beyond the upheaval and uprooting of their time.
Exodus 28 describes the liturgical clothing of the priests in detail. There’s a main garment, a tunic of some sort (called an ephod in Hebrew) made of colorful yarns. And, there are shoulder pads, bands, and a pocketed breastpiece inlaid with precious stones with miniature engravings (see Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, 1991).
From a symbolic point of view, the breastpiece is the most interesting part of the priest’s vestment. The first thing we learn is that there are twelve precious stones on it, each engraved with the names of the twelve tribes:
Then take two lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. On the two stones you shall make seal engravings – the work of a lapidary – of the names of the sons of Israel. Having bordered them with frames of gold, attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder-pieces for remembrance before the Eternal. (Ex. 28:9-12)
Added to this first setting of stones with the names of the tribes is the “breastpiece of decision,” choshen hamishpat. According to Sarna (ibid., p. 179), it is a pouch over the ephod that hangs from the neck. This pouch, too, is decorated with 12 stones, each engraved with a name of a tribe (Ex. 28:15-21):
Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Eternal at all times. Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Eternal. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Eternal at all times. (Ex. 28:29-30)
Because these oracle-like devices, the Urim and Thummim, are so shrouded in mystery and theological confusion, most commentators focus their attention on explaining them. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition, devotes an entire essay to this subject, called “Urim and Thummim” (W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., pp. 573-574). But this attention fails to lift up the more prosaic elements that can teach us about the meaning of spiritual leadership – especially for times of rupture.
In describing the function of these engravings, the Torah emphasizes the words “remembrance,” zikaron and “heart,” lev (Ex. 28:12, 29-30). There seem to be two aspects to remembrance: first, the remembrance of the Israelite people is for Aaron to carry with him, and second, it is to provide “remembrance before God.” There is dual symbolic effect on Aaron’s consciousness. And, here we deduce that in biblical times the heart was understood to be the organ of intention, not just emotion. Aaron, according the verses cited above, is meant to be aware of the tribes accompanying him as he enters the sanctuary, as he crosses the threshold between ordinary and sacred space. As he gets deeper into the spiritual space, as he gets close to the Divine Presence, he could easily forget about the people: the Torah wants to make sure that Aaron’s communion remains connected.
Professor Pinchas Hacohen Peli (1930-1989) was an influential Israeli academic scholar of Jewish thought and a member of a distinguished rabbinic family. Drawing on the teachings of two great 20th century post-Holocaust theologians, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph Soloveitchik, Peli was able to provide a pluralistic bridge of understanding within the Jewish world, as well as a bridge between Jews and Christians. In a very accessible collection of essays on the weekly Torah reading, Peli sees relevant lessons in the Torah’s brief description of the ephod and the choshen about what he calls responsible leadership:
It seems that the design of the Ephod and the breast-plate is meant to teach us about a most important lesson about responsible leadership. There are many leaders, who after they are elected or chosen for high office swiftly forget the people whom they are supposed to represent. The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were to be carried on the “shoulders” of Aaron, so that he should never forget the burden of their needs and always remember that he was not carried on their shoulders … they must be constantly carried on his shoulders, to care for their needs and to be a loyal spokesman for them … He must not only carry on his shoulders that which is within his line of duty, but must also fill his heart with love and compassion for each and every one of his people. (Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture [Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005,1987], p. 88)
If we accept the Exodus 28 text as an output of the rupture of the Babylonian exile, Peli’s insights become even more profound. Before the exile the people lived in defined kingdoms: with Israel in the north and Judah in the south, they lived in regional sub-areas according to ancestral tribes. Now, mixed all together in a faraway land, the people need a reimagination about a new reunification. According to the last books of the Hebrew Bible (see Ezra, chapter 2), a priest named Ezra convinces a large and disparate group to return to their ancestral land and to begin again.