Thursday, February 18, 2016

Body Language - Reflections on Parashat Tetzaveh 5776

(Exodus 27:20 - 30:10)

For whatever reason, the A-lmighty has given me the ability for make friends easily. My wife and kids joke about it, saying that Abba (Father) can make friends with dryer lint, and they smirk every time a total stranger strikes up a conversation with me in the grocery store or on the street. 

So let me tell you about a man of my acquaintance whom we'll call "Joe." 

Joe is a big bear of a man with a long ponytail, the type who greets everybody with a broad toothy smile. He's funny, naturally friendly, and his booming, bellowing laugh is contagious. He is passionate about music and loves to sing. He's a good father and husband. He cooks for his kids, takes them to church, tries to teach them the rights and wrongs of life. In short, Joe is a simple, sweet, good-hearted man.

To look at him today, you wouldn't know that Joe had a very difficult childhood, plagued with many life-threatening illnesses which kept him in hospital for long periods of time. Later, in high school, his father became disabled and they lost their house. He and his family lived in a car for nine months until they found a homeless campground in the woods. Yet somehow, despite ongoing medical issues, he has managed to transcend all this adversity, to keep smiling and to build the life he has for himself today.

What is the connection between Joe and this week's Torah portion?

Put a pin in that question for just a minute.

We read this week of the priestly vestments to be worn by the High Priest of Israel: The linen breeches, the floor-length tunic, the robe, the apron, the belt, the breastplate, the turban and the headband. 

The Torah goes to great length to describe the design of these garments and the beautiful and precious materials used in their manufacture: gold, silver, scarlet wool, rare purple- and blue-dyed cloth, diamonds, rubies, sapphires.

The high priest in his resplendent uniform represents the ideal man: the person who has worked through his issues (with great effort and difficulty) to overcome the baser human instincts; the person who has emerged from the crucible of personal growth and development, clear of mind, healthy in body and pure of spirit, eager and dedicated in the service of Gcd. Indeed, we are taught that every garment he wore was deeply symbolic, and helped atone for some particular human character fault.

Take for example, the tzitz, the golden headband. On it was engraved the words "Kodesh L'ashem", Holy unto Gcd. We are taught that the headband atoned for any temple offering brought in a state of ritual impurity, either purposely or inadvertently; and more broadly, it corrected for the character flaw of azut metzach, of impudence and rebelliousness that could lead to the bringing of such a flawed sacrifice.

The high priest, then, was the great peacemaker, uniting Gcd above with His frequently wayward people below. 

So what does all this have to do with Joe? As I mentioned above, to look at him you would never guess at the difficult life Joe has led.

And to look at him, you would never guess that Joe is Jewish, born of a Jewish mother. 

He shared this information with me quite by accident one day. Of course he knows nothing of the tenets of Judaism, having not received a single hour of religious instruction in his life. But he knows he is a Jew nonetheless.

And then yesterday, I guess Joe felt he had gotten to know me well enough to share something deeply important to him. He pulled me aside, rolled up his sleeve, and showed me one of his tattoos. On his arm, in flawless Hebrew, was boldly engraved "Kodesh L'ashem."

What he didn't know was that he showed me his tattoo the very week that those words are read publicly in the annual Torah reading cycle in every synagogue on the planet. 

I asked if he knew what the words meant, and he said that he'd looked them up. Joe neither reads nor writes Hebrew, yet, of all the myriad tattoos one could commission, he chose to have engraved on his body, in Hebrew, "Holy unto the Lcrd." It spoke to him, but couldn't explain why.

Here's why: his Jewish soul, deprived as it has been of any traditional, healthy conduit of Jewish spirituality, found expression in this tattoo.

There are many many "Joe"s in the world; people who may not even consciously realize that they seek a path back home, who yearn for a connection with the higher spirituality that the High Priest of Israel represents, who have a deep-seated calling to be Kodesh L'ashem.

The messianic age approaches. We the cognoscenti, those who have been blessed with a Torah education, those instructed in the proper ways of devotion to Gcd, must (like the High Priest) overlook the inadvertent transgressions of our people, and pave the spiritual path back home with Torah Shel Ahavah - the Torah of Love and Kindness and Compassion. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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