On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - T’tzaveh: What to Wear

Parashat T’tzaveh goes into detail about the ritual garments and dress of the ancient high priests. In almost every religious community, the leaders wear distinctive garments that make their roles clear in their respective communities. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs wonders whether those who wear these garments are the only spiritual leaders in their communities, and shares a touching story about one of his own unexpected spiritual leaders.

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Welcome back to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. We're here on episode 109, hearing from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, as he teaches us a bit about Parashat T’tzaveh. And he asks us, who are the people that teach us the most? Are they the people that you might think they are, or is it perhaps sometimes a surprise?

 This week we focus our attention on Parashat T’tzaveh from the Book of Exodus. T’tzaveh is actually the very first word of the parashah, and it means to command. And the opening commandment of the parashah is around the ner tamid, the eternal light that not only existed in the ancient praying place, but actually to this day is part of contemporary sanctuaries in the Jewish tradition.

The rest of the parashah really goes into some detail about the ritual garments and the dress of the ancient High Priest Aaron and the regular old priests, Aaron sons. And the truth is, they're rather beautiful and elaborate ritual garments that demarcate the priests from all the other Israelites.

And if I think for a moment about every religious community, there almost always are distinctive garments that the leaders of any faith community wear whether it's a liturgical occasion or just in general. And I think particularly I was privileged to be at the Vatican this past year for a conference on migrants and refugees. And I have to say that I had the opportunity to be in several of the beautiful cathedrals at the Vatican. And what was stunning were the elaborate dress that the different priests wore. And you could, without knowing anything about Catholicism, you could look at those in their ritual garment and you could pick out who actually was in charge, who were the novices, who were those who were at different steps along the the, sort of, the ladder of hierarchy.

And you know I think of even my own experience when I put on my tallis or another rabbi or cantor puts on a tallis to lead a community in prayer. And the act of putting on that garment helps to demarcate us from others. So I wanted to just tell maaseh sh’haya. In Hebrew, that is a tale that really happened. It's about a ner tamid, an eternal light. And it's about those who are perceived to be the ritual leaders of a community and those who actually are.

So the story takes place in a wonderful congregation in Brooklyn Heights, New York called the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. I was privileged to start my rabbinic career there as a twentysomething rabbi, and it was just an amazing place. And one of the most remarkable people that I met was the custodian of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, a man named Delroy Alleyne. Delroy was from the Caribbean island of Grenada, and he was amazing because he saved everything. He threw out nothing because he came from an island where you can't just, you know, e-mail for a spare part. You have to actually save the extra screw or the extra, you know, fastener because at some point you’re going to need it. So he saved everything.

The synagogue—every closet, every cabinet that you opened was crammed with junk. And it used to make me crazy. I used to say to Delroy, “Delroy do me a favor, please. Just, let's get rid of some of this stuff,” I say.

“No, no we're going to need it some time. You'll see. You'll see.” And he always won.

But it was right before Yom Kippur. It was literally Erev Yom Kippur. And I had asked Delroy to throw out all these old candles. You know, on Shabbat—I don't know if you’re from a more traditional community, this story may not resonate. But what we would have, and I think many synagogues have, is we would light Shabbat candles every week. But they were tall candles and by the time everyone was ready to leave the building, those candles weren't even half-burned. So we would end up blowing them out so as not to, obviously, have the whole building go up in flames. And Delroy would save those half-used candles in a box.

So, a week before Yom Kippur I said, “Delroy, you’ve got to just clean up that box of candles.” And I walk in, it's Erev Yom Kippur, and Delroy’s got this huge pot boiling in the kitchen. And I said, “Delroy, we’ve got a million things to do. We’ve got to move everything over to the Plymouth Church where we hold our high holidays. What are you making in the kitchen?”

He says, “Well, I have a project.” I said, “Delroy, we don't have time for a project! We've got to go do this.” He said, “No, no.”

So I walk all over and I look. He's taken the candles that I asked him to throw out. He's melting them down, and then he's pouring the wax into a cylinder. I said, “Delroy, what are you doing?” He said, “I'm making a ner tamid for Yom Kippur.”

I stopped cold in my tracks. I realized that Delroy was doing something that, frankly, a brilliant rabbi might have imagined, but probably not.

He was taking a little bit of every Shabbat from an entire year with the candles that he was melting down, and he was putting all that Shabbat, all that light, all those candles into one very kind of intense candle, which would be not only the ner tamid for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, but it would be amplified by all the light of an entire year. I was stunned. I was speechless. I said, “Delroy, I am so sorry. I can't believe I was giving you a hard time.”

And in a million years I never would have thought to do what he did. It was so powerful, so symbolically potent. It wasn't just he was being frugal, which he was. He was being a religious, frankly, thinker and visionary.

And if you walked into the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in that moment, you’d look at me out—got my tallis and all my different things, and say oh, here is their religious leader, and say oh Delroy, he's the custodian. I've got to tell you in that momen,t I felt like our roles were switched. I felt like I didn't even deserve to be the custodian, this guy deserved to be the spiritual leader of this community.

I tell you that story because in all of the hierarchy of all of our religious traditions, we sometimes miss—the person wearing the most elaborate ritual garments may not be the person with the most religious imagination.

And on some level, I love the idea of a more level playing field. Where it's not the priests and the, you know, the high priest and the normal priest and the Levites and then the Israelites. I think there are times when we've got to actually level that playing field. And lay people who aren't ordained haven't had the benefit of a rabbinic education sometimes have the most extraordinary ideas.

So T’tzaveh talks about religious hierarchy. It talks about religious roles. They're stratified, they’re hierarchical. The story of Delroy Alleyne I hope is an example of, we've got to take the best thinking from everywhere around us. And I don't know about the ner tamid in your community, if it's electrical, it may be a candle, it may be a solar ner tamid. But what keeps the light burning in your community? Is it something technical? Or is it that idea, you know when a cartoon is trying to signal that a person has an idea, they usually put a light bulb in a word cloud? That's the signal, the light goes on.

To me the ner tamid is a symbol of God. It's a symbol of an enlightened world, and I hope that each of us can bring our light.

To conclude, the Pardes Yosef is a late 19th, early 20th century Torah commentator, and he has a comment on the ner tamid. And he says that each of us must light a ner tamid in our own heart, and not only in the tabernacle or in the synagogue. He says, we must light it outside the curtain, in the street, in the marketplace, in seemingly profane activities.

So I don't know where you are right now. I don't know if there's a place that has a ner tamid as you look around. But could you be that ner tamid? Could you have that light kindle, the light of understand, the light of imagination, the light of seeing what others might overlook? And can we kindle that ner tamid? Not sometimes, but continuously? And can we look to all the teachers around us, not just the ones wearing the fancy clothes, but those who have the gift of what religious imagination always has? That spark of a new idea, that candle that holds all of the candles? And in so doing, t’tzaveh. We are commanded to be those leaders, we are commanded to be those people who kindle that light today, tomorrow, and every day.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week on ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.