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Priests, Queens, and Clothes

03/15/2024 05:07:35 PM


            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Pekudei, in which the priestly vestments are described once again, as the priests finally done them, and Moses anoints the finished Tabernacle and the dressed-up priests. We don’t often get to learn about Pekudei on it’s own, since it is the second of a double portion most years, and we tend to get stuck on the first half or on the big picture of the double portion. Being a leap year, we get a little extra time with Parashiyot Vayek’hel and Pekudei separately this year.

            As I’ve said the last few weeks, these Torah portions get very repetitive with the descriptions of the Mishkan, before it’s built, while it’s being built, and after it’s finished. There are a few things that stand out in this parasha. The most obvious is that the parasha ends with the presence of God settling over the Mishkan, thus ends the Book of Exodus. Another interesting bit is that the priests “bring the Mishkan to Moses” once all its pieces are finished. Rashi explains that Moses did not participate in any of the building of the discrete parts so he had to be the one to erect the whole thing together; Rashi also says Moses is the only one spiritually strong enough to assemble the whole thing together, because in fact with Moses at the helm the Mishkan was able to raise itself, much like how the Sea of Reeds split for Moses’s staff but he is not the one who split it.

            When I started to type out just the summary of the parasha, I was not yet sure what this d’var Torah would be about. When I wrote the words “dressed-up priests” I started singing to myself “I’m done dressing up for you” a song from Alicia Jo Rabin’s album Girls on the Run. The whole album is full of songs sung from the perspectives of various Biblical women, and “I’m Done Dressing Up” is Vashti’s song. I have thought before about the priests’ vestments in relation to Esther’s clothing, because of course this part of the Torah always aligns with the Purim season, so the topics are often interconnected in my mind. But somehow it the phrasing that came naturally in describing the priests in this week’s parasha struck me in relation to Vashti instead.

Being a priest was of course a great honor, but do we know that they wanted it? I’m sure King Ahasuerus also believed being summoned to dance for him was an honor for Queen Vashti. Aaron already flubbed up spiritual leadership of the Israelites once while Moses was on Mount Sinai; does he feel up for trying again with the Divine Presence RIGHT THERE?! In a few weeks, we read of two of his sons doing their priestly duties wrongly and being killed for it. Maybe they weren’t right for the task either. Just because Aaron is Moses’s brother and Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar are Moses’s nephews doesn’t mean they should necessarily be the priests of the whole Israelite people, or that they wanted the responsibility. What would have happened if they too had said “I’m done dressing up” and simply wanted to be Levis – people of their tribe who helped out in and around the Mishkan and eventually the Temple, but without the responsibility (and gore) of being the priests?

It is impossible to know how Judaism would have developed without priests or with a more democratic priesthood. We do know a little bit about the collapse of dynastic priesthood in the Second Temple, but that had more to do with the Roman overlords promoting Levites more sympathetic or subservient to them over Aaron’s great-great-grandsons, rather than democracy or good leadership skills. Maybe if the priesthood had been something people had to want, had to buy into, had to be approved of by the rest of the nation, it wouldn’t have been susceptible to the corruption of the Roman influence. Or maybe it would have been more susceptible to other corruptions much earlier. What we do know is that in general, people learn better when they are interested in the material, and people work much harder when they are invested in the project, and people look better when they are comfortable in their own skin. Whether dancing (like Vashti), tax collection and wealth redistribution or butchery and barbeque (like the priests), governmental leadership or wardrobe choices (like Vashti and the priests), each person should be allowed to make their own choices and pursue what appeals to them.

This Shabbat, this Purim season, let us open doors for those who may feel restricted from the world of possibilities. Let us embrace all manner of dress and representation, and let us nurture the interests of the youth in our community. Let us support those pursuing their dreams, and offer new paths to those stuck in positions thrust upon them against their own choices. And May we all find our own passions that encourage us to put on real pants each day. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784