AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Tetzaveh

Parashat Tetzaveh

Adar 11, 5780 – March 7, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Haftarah: Samuel I 15:1-34

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Tetzaveh, which is Hebrew for “you shall command.” It is a continuation of the instructions given regarding the construction of the Tabernacle, and there are four principle concerns outlined in this parashah: (1) the olive oil for the Menorah, that was to fuel the ner tamid (the eternal light)[1]; (2) the priestly vestments; (3) the seven-day consecration service, that was to inaugurate the Tabernacle; and, (4) the incense altar, otherwise known as the Golden Altar, upon which incense was burned every morning and evening. Most of this information is almost entirely dedicated to describing the sacral garments of the Kohanim (28:1-43) and – in particular – the High Priest (Heb: Kohen Gadol), which is a role filled by Moshe’s brother: Aaron. The Kohanim were only permitted to perform the Temple service when they were wearing certain garments, and the special quality of these vestments were designed to separate the priests from everyone else. The nature of the attire was meant to correlate with the spiritual level of the task, “for the way that a person approaches a task influences how [they] will perform it.”[2] An extraordinary amount of care and respect was given to dress in a way that was suitable to match the sanctity of the Tabernacle service. The sacred space of the Tabernacle housed G-d’s presence on earth, and the priests functioned as the intermediaries between G-d and the nation of Israel.

Upon reading all of this information, it becomes increasingly clear that the Mishkan was not a public synagogue; it was reserved for the “upper echelons of the priesthood,” and was created solely to “mirror the heavenly prototype in which G-d was presumed to dwell.”[3] The Mishkan (which comes from the root (שכן) meaning “to dwell”)[4] was a liminal space where the will of G-d was expressed and human concerns were communicated. It was the physical representation of the Kabbalistic principle “as above so below”[5] – and the antecedent for the Talmudic dictum of “from within and from without” (discussed last week) – implying that a fundamental reciprocity exists between the earth and the heavens; the lifelong, internal struggle between the two inclinations of a human being assumes a perpendicularity to the cosmic tension between divine light and its vessels (Heb: kelipot). The Mishkan was the nexus between worlds, and it was the responsibility of the Kohanim to hold space for this delicate type of liminality. This is also why the Tabernacle has another Hebrew name – Ohel Mo’ed, meaning “Tent of Meeting.” And this is exactly what the Kohanim – under the Kohen Gadol – did. The Tabernacle was conceived as the most powerful dwelling place of G-d’s presence, and for that reason, it functioned as a sacred space – a liminal space – in which G-d would “meet” with an earthly representative to communicate. The holiest place for the Jewish people was a place on earth – not in the heavens, not in the world-to-come, not on another planet. Shrouded under an ornate façade, and obscured by a series of elaborate rituals, the Mishkanwas a potently grounding structure: an earthly residence, a terrestrial shrine, for the unknowable, unseeable G-d.

Like all of the physical components of the Tabernacle, many commentators expound upon the spiritual symbolism of the individual vestments of both the Kohen Gadol, and the ordinary Kohanim.[6] I won’t delve into any of that here, but would encourage you to read a bit about the ephod or the breastplate worn by the Hight Priest to better understand how these vestments are unifying – rather than discriminating – garments, designed to uplift the entire nation in service of G-d. Additionally, there is much room to examine how these vestments cultivated an honorable relationship with gold (in 28:2 we read l’kavod ul’tifaret, meaning “for glory and splendor”), and how this contrasts with our modern use of the metal, as well as the environmental impacts of gold mining practices.[7] The furnishings of the Mishkan, and the priestly vestments, can direct our attention to an environmental consciousness, which is quite aptly contained within a correlation between the two altars – the alter of gold and the altar of copper. “In the Mishnah, the volume of Mo’ed (tractate Chagigah) ends with the law that the altar of gold and the altar of copper did not require ritual immersion because they could not become impure. According to Rabbi Eliezer, this was because they were considered like the earth (which cannot become ritually unclean).”[8] If we back up for a second, it is important to note that – when reading Torah, and seeking to find a contemporary application of a passage – not everything can be read literally. First of all, the Mishkandoesn’t exist anymore, and neither does the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, so at first glance many of these passages may seem irrelevant. But in Rabbinic Judaism, there is a system of exegesis known as Pardes,[9] which is an acronym to represent four levels of meaning that can be gleaned from the text. For example, the Lubavitcher Rebbe gives a teaching about the human heart being its own type of Mishkan, where we are commanded to construct a resting place (a Sanctuary) for G-d.[10] And so we can talk about finding the priest within, or kindling our own inner ner tamid[11] to symbolize the light of our own heart and the devotion to a higher reality. In this way, we can make a link between the biblical Tabernacle with our own internal world, and laws pertaining to the Tabernacle can be extended to our own moral framework. Like this, we can talk about the Temple within us, the sanctuary service that we still perform, and how laws pertaining to various components of the Mishkan are related to the condition of our soul. The Mishkan has a moral significance for all of us, even if a literal Tabernacle no longer exists.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 46a) discusses how there are those of us who are made of gold and those of us who are made of copper. This is a reference to the two types altars – the alter of gold that stood within the outer sanctuary of the Tabernacle, and the copper altar in the courtyard where burnt offerings were brought. Each altar, and each type of human being, have varying functions and capabilities as they pertain to the spiritual service of G-d. But either way we spin it, so long as we remind ourselves that there is an altar for spiritual service – within the heart of our own inner Temple – then we cannot become impure. In this way, we are like the earth. “Just as the earth which we tread on is a symbol of humility, so our soul becomes void of any will except the will of G-d, as expressed in the Torah. Thus we say in prayer: ‘Let my soul be unto all as the dust.’”[12] My point, then, is this: If we have, within our hearts, an essential desire to serve G-d – this same motivation can become the spark of our environmentalism. Because if we defile the earth, then we affect the ritual purity of our inner alter. Spiritual impurity, by definition, is the absence of holiness. If we choose to decide that G-d has no merit in our lives, and pursue ulterior motives not in line with holiness, then we lose the ability to enter our own inner sanctuary. We lose, by default, the ability to be like the earth. The association here, is that our identity – and the condition of our soul – is dependent upon the ritual purity of our inner altar. And if our lowly desires defile the earth, then our inner sanctuary will become devoid of G-d. Our spiritual transformation is invested in the condition of the earth – the laws pertaining to the Mishkan are as much a theological concern, as they are ecological responsibility. And this is why the Torah is so beautiful; this is why the Torah is for the Earth.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: the Mishkan as an earthly residence for G-d, the human heart and our inner sanctuary, those who belong to the altar of copper or the altar of gold, and being like the earth

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Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, ed. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah, vol. 3, Heb. Ed. (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1995), p. 229 – as sourced from an article by Rabbi Ana Bonnheim titled: “Each of Us Can Kindle the Light Within.” As found at:

Accessed on March 5, 2020.

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Torah Studies: Tetzaveh.” As found at:

Accessed on March 4, 2020.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Siegel, Shimson Stuart. “Parshat Tetzaveh: All That is Gold Does Not Glitter.” As found at:

Accessed on March 4, 2020.

Translated from the Writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “Hayom Yom: Tackling Life’s Tasks – 21 Tammuz.” As found at:

Accessed on March 5, 2020.

  1. [1] In the first line of the parashah (27:20), we read: “Now you shall command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you clear olive oil, crushed for illumination, to kindle a lamp continually.” In Hebrew, ner is “lamp” and tamid means “continually” or “regularly” – and it refers to the daily lamp lighting of the Menorah that was to remain lit from evening until morning. Rashi insists that it was “continual in the sense that it was kindled every single day, without exception, even on the Sabbath.” (Scherman, p.465) As a result, the ner tamid has been used as a term to refer to the eternal light that is positioned above a synagogue’s ark. (Eskenazi, p.475) [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.465 [3] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.451 [4] This is also the root from which the term Shechinah (presence of G-d) is generated. (Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.451) [5] Zohar II, 220b. [6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.465 – The Kohanim would put on breeches (Heb: Michnasayim), over which a tunic was worn (Heb: Ketonet), a turban would be wound around the head (Heb: Migbahat) and a sash placed around the waist (Heb: Avnef). The Kohen Gadol would also first put on these garments, although the head covering was wound differently (Heb: Mitznefet), and then would drape a robe of blue wool (Heb: Me’il), tie the ephod and the breastplate (Heb: Choshen), and then would place the headplate (Heb: Tzitz) with the engraving “Holy to Hashem.” (28:36) Modifications were made by the High Priest during the Yom Kippur service, and these are knows as the White Vestments. [7] Siegel, “Parshat Tetzaveh: All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” – apart from this article, and regarding the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, one could incorporate a discussion of how the Israelites acquired the gold that was donated for the construction of the Mishkan [8] Sacks, “Torah Studies: Tetzaveh.” [9] The four levels of Pardes are: Peshat (פְּשָׁט), the literal meaning concerning laws and narratives; Remez (רֶמֶז), which concerns allegory and alludes to deeper principles in Judaism; Derash (דְּרַשׁ), which is the metaphorical level and contains ethics and morals; and Sod (סוֹד), which is the most esoteric level regarding experience of G-d. (Sacks, “Torah Studies: Tetzaveh”) [10] Lubavitcher Rebbe. “Hayom Yom” – In 25:8 we read: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me – so that I may dwell among them.” A teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this verse does not end as one would expect, which would be: “so I can dwell among it [that being the Tabernacle].” Instead we read “so that I may dwell among them,” which is to be interpreted as within each and every Jew. In this way, there are three types of Sanctuaries contained in this commandment: there is the inner sanctuary of the heart, which relates to how we construct our inner reality; there is the physical Tabernacle that is described quite literally in Parashat Terumah; and, there is the world of outer action that must reflect the blueprint of Torah. [11] “The idea that we Jews are custodians of a personal ner tamid is also reflected in a teaching from Itturei Torah: ‘Every Jew must light the ner tamid in his own heart.’” (Bonnheim, “Each of Us Can Kindle the Light Within.”) [12] Sacks, “Torah Studies: Tetzaveh” – Mar b. Rabina’s prayer as found in the Talmud

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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