Tetzaveh: What Priestly Garb Teaches Us About Leadership

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This essay is the 2nd place entry for this year’s Blickstein D’var Torah Competition.

By Shira Hoffer, NFTY-NE

In the show The Office, Michael Scott, the Regional Manager of the Scranton branch of the paper distribution company Dunder Mifflin Inc., once said, “the only time I set the bar low is for limbo.” This could certainly be said for G-d and G-d’s expectations for the Israelites.

Tetzaveh, and you shall command, is a fitting name for this week’s parashat (torah portion) because of the endless list of specific and seemingly irrelevant commandments about the priestly garb and sacrificial duties.

Yes, at first glance, one could skim this parashat without missing nearly any major plot points of the Torah narrative. However, upon taking a closer look, this week’s parashat has a huge amount to teach us about leadership.

It begins with the installation of Aaron and his sons as holy priests, the leaders of the community, charged with performing the duties of sacrifice, and bringing the people of Israel close to G-d. As it turns out, there are many specifications to Aaron’s clothing. He must wear a breastplate and a diadem and have richly colored threads in his robe. He also must wear shoulder pieces, a headdress, a sash, and a tunic. Precious stones and metals are to adorn him, and specific engravings as well. One interpretation of this is that all of this is for hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of a mitzvah – that mitzvah being, sacrifice.

I would suggest that all this adornment serves a different purpose. Being appointed by G-d to be G-d’s servant could be an ego boost of existential proportions, and G-d definitely didn’t want this to happen. Thus, with each specific requirement, G-d isn’t being random. G-d is planting subtle reminders on all parts of Aaron’s body to remind him of the greater purpose of his leadership, and to help him be the most effective leader he can be, for all of the people.

One of the first requirements is:

וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת־שְׁתֵּי אַבְנֵי־שֹׁהַם וּפִתַּחְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶם שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

And you shall take two lazuli stones and engrave upon them the names of the children of Israel (Ex 28:9)

We learn that these stones are to be placed prominently upon Aaron’s shoulder-pieces. Thus, Aaron will never forget that he is acting not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of the entire community. He is literally carrying his community on his shoulders. He must practice inclusive leadership, understanding the sacrificial needs of all members of his people. Lest he forget for whom he is working, he is reminded every moment by these shining stones on his shoulders.

Other stones serve other purposes. Better known are the Urim and Tumim stones. Perhaps the most mystical objects in Judaism, these two stones are to be placed on the “חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט”(Ex. 28:30) the “breastplate of judgment.” Urim and Tumim are often thought of as paired opposites, such as light and darkness, or good and evil. As these stones were thought to have possessed magical abilities, changing their arrangement to answer tough questions of those who asked, Rashi believes that these stones enabled Aaron to have integrity and discernment in his decision-making. Furthermore, these stones are specifically located “עַל־לֵב אַהֲרֹן,” upon Aaron’s heart (28:30). Just as the heart is essential for life, integrity is essential for leadership.

Perhaps the most important requirement is the engraving of “‘קֹדֶשׁ לה’” “holy to G-d,”(28:36) on his headdress. Placed upon his forehead is a reminder of his purpose. All of his hard work is for G-d.

From these requirements, we as NFTY leaders can learn three important lessons about effective leadership.

  1. We must carry people with us. We cannot lead alone; we need to be inclusive and engaging in everything that we do.
  2. Integrity is an invaluable aspect of leadership. The ability to make decisions, balancing different options and priorities in the moment, is a skill that leaders must possess.
  3. There is a greater purpose. Whether we’re leading programs or events, everything that we do has a purpose beyond the details. Keeping that purpose in mind, clearly in front of us, at all times, is important because details can change, and knowing our end goal is crucial to making the activity worthwhile and meaningful.

As if these important lessons aren’t enough, the parashat goes on to teach us about G-d’s presence. After the specifics of clothing are laid out, the parashat turns to detailing how animal sacrifice is to be performed. And then, after a seemingly endless list of rules and guidelines comes the verse:

וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹ-ים

I will dwell with the Israelites and I will be their G-d.  (29:45)

This refreshing break from the gruesome details of sacrifice offers a key insight into the relationship between the Israelites and G-d. The verse doesn’t say “If you wear these clothes and do these sacrifices in this way, THEN I will dwell among you.” It doesn’t say “if you lead in the way that I desire, I will dwell with you.” It simply states that G-d is with the people of Israel. It is an unconditional statement of G-d’s presence.

The Torah puts out guidelines for how we, as Jews, are to live our lives, and it even puts forth punishments for those who don’t follow them, but never does it say that G-d will desert us. G-d is always here for us.

Whether we are leaders like Aaron, or followers, whether we pay attention to details or ignore them, whether we are in times of joy or mourning – both of which we have experienced in many ways since Convention 2017 – we have G-d’s presence, like the Eternal Light, dwelling among us. And whether this manifests itself for you in a literal way, through this incredible community here in Dallas, or in another way, it is here to stay.

Shira Hoffer is a junior from NFTY NE. She attends Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish day school, in Waltham, MA, and was a participant at Kutz ’17. When not involved in Jewish activities, Shira can be found playing volleyball or ultimate frisbee, spending time with her friends and family, or enjoying the beauty of nature.

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