Parasha Tetsaveh

Last week Pope Benedict shocked the world by announcing his retirement.  As you know, he will become the first Pope in some 600 years who does not die in office. Since that time, there have been many articles analyzing this decision and the legacy that Pope Benedict would leave. One such article in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention earlier this week.  The article was by Charlotte Allen and it was titled, “The Best Dressed Pope Ever”.  So perfectly has Pope Benedict been garbed that she described him as “The Duke of Windsor of Popes” in her article.  She goes on to give us some examples of the Pope’s sartorial splendor:

 “Benedict saying Mass in 2008 at Washington Nationals Park in a billowing scarlet satin chasuble (a priest's outermost liturgical garment) trimmed with crimson velvet and delicate gold piping. Benedict greeting worshipers in Rome, his chasuble this time woven of emerald-green watered silk with a pattern of golden stars. Benedict on Oct. 21 canonizing Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk woman, while attired in a fanon, a gold-and-white striped shoulder covering, dating to the 8th century, that only popes may wear.”  She compares Benedict's “fancy dressing” to the more sedate wear of his predecessors, particularly his immediate predecessor Pope John Paul ll, who, she says, a little snarkily, “had little interest in clothes, tending to wear whatever was handed to him.”  When I read this, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the papal vestments had been modeled after the priestly garments worn at the Temple in Jerusalem, and which are described in detail in our Torah portion for this week.  After all, the Church understood itself as being the successor to Judaism.  However, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Pope’s vestments are derived not from the priestly dress of the Hebrew Scriptures at all, all, but rather from the secular dress of the Greco-Roman world in which the early Church developed.  So if the Church did not borrow the vestments of the Priests of Jerusalem for its own rituals, with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the priestly garments of the ancient Jewish world passed out of existence, right? Since there were no more priests serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, the garments of the priests described in our Torah portion are out of sight and therefore out of mind.  If you thought that, you would be very wrong.  Because if you go to any synagogue on any Sabbath morning, the memory, sight, and even sound of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem are right before our eyes, if only we knew what we were looking at.  Our Parasha this week speaks of six vestments that the Priest will wear in performing his duties.  These are the Breastplate, the Ephod, the Robe, the Tunic, the Turban and a Sash.  The face of the breastplate was filled with 12 gemstones, representing the tribes of Israel.  Where in our service do we see the clothing of the priests?  Why, on the Torah!  The Torah mantle, or covering, represents the Robe or Tunic that the priest wore as the outer garment.  This mantle is decorated in various ways. Sometimes biblical verses are embroidered in the fabric of the mantle. Or, gemstones can be represented that recall the gems of the breastplate of the High Priest.  The sash, or belt, with which we bind the Torah recalls the sash worn by the Priest.  The breastplate worn by the priest, with its twelve gemstones representing all of Israel, is recalled by the breastplate that is often placed in the Torah, over the mantle.  This too symbolizes that the Torah is the possession of all of the people of Israel, not just its leaders.  Finally, we place a crown on the top of the Torah, over the handles.  This represents the Turban that the priests in the Temple wore when performing their duties.  Often, instead of a crown, a congregation will place two finials, or, in Hebrew, “rimonim” over each protruding handle of the Torah scroll.  These rimonim are often decorated with small bells that jingle as the Torah is carried through the congregation. Thus, we not only recall the sight of the vestments of the Priest, but the sound of the priest walking as well.  For the Torah tells us that around the hem of the Priest’s robe were sewn 72 bells, which, of course, jingled as the Priest walked, announcing his presence to all.  In her article about the Pope’s vestments, Charlotte Allen wonders about the message that the Pope Benedict is hoping to convey by his choice of dress.  She conjectures that by using beautiful traditional clothing he is reminding people that despite the ugliness of the Church scandals of the past decades, there is much that is beautiful and timeless about the faith that he professes.  When we gaze upon the Torah scroll, when we reach out to touch it and to kiss it, may we likewise be reminded of our ancient tradition and the beauty and eternity of the Jewish faith. Shabbat Shalom        

Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph
Congregation Beth Shalom
Naperville, Illinois