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Splendor in the Quest

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This week, Mayanot focuses on the holiday of Purim.


"You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor." (Exodus 28:2)

The Ohr Hachaim explains: It is not the human glory and splendor of Aaron that the vestments are intended to display; it is the glory and splendor of God. The high priest must wear vestments that reflect the glory and splendor of God, as he is God's appointed human ambassador to our world.

He continues: If we carefully read through the instructions regarding the vestments of the high priest, we discover that he wears eight articles of clothing. Four of these are of plain white linen, whereas four contain various amounts of gold -- white clothes versus gold clothes in Rabbinic parlance. The white clothes reflect God's splendor, tiferet in Hebrew, an attribute that is expressed by God's Holy Name YHVH, while the gold clothes represent God's glory, Kavod in Hebrew, expressed by the Divine name Adonai.

We shall attempt to explore the message the Torah conveys to us through the medium of the priestly vestments according to the Ohr Hachaim in this essay.


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The verse describes the vestments in reverse order in which they are worn according to this interpretation -- the white clothes, which represent God's splendor are worn next to the skin but are mentioned in the verse second by the word Tiferet, whereas the gold clothes which represent His glory, constitute the visible outer layer and are the first one's referred to in the word Kavod. This reversal reflects our own orientation towards God's Presence; we experience the Divine Presence as Adonai, a word that means Lord and Master.

Our initial interaction with God is power centered and is therefore based on Kavod. The universe we live in is sustained and operated by Divine power that is often exercised in a manner that surpasses our understanding. We are witness to much cruel and apparently undeserved suffering. Kavod means glory, but is also used to convey the ideas of fear and respect in Hebrew. The glory of God's power, the name Adonai, inspires fear and respect in us, as His power has the potential to be exercised against us.


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We must penetrate to a deeper level of reality to become aware of God as YHVH, and to appreciate the splendor behind the power. To perceive YHVH we must burrow to the source of all being. Jewish tradition teaches that YHVH stands for hoyo, hove, veyihye umehave et hakol, God was and is and will be, and is the source of being in all these tenses. As the purpose of creation was to express God's benevolence, this name, which designates God as the source of being, also conveys the benevolent intention of the Divine will in creation and is employed to express His attribute of mercy. Adonai is the attribute of justice; it is the outer garment donned by YHVH, the attribute of mercy.

Let us attempt to make these ideas more user-friendly by considering the human reaction. We give honor [kavod] and respect to anything or anyone that wields power over our existence regardless of how we may feel about the way the one wielding the power is exercising it. Whether he or it is generous or cruel, good or evil is irrelevant to the feeling of respect. We have to take the powers that control our lives seriously and attempt to arrive at an accommodation with them; otherwise they will destroy us.

But we would hardly describe an evil tyrant as splendid no matter how powerful; splendor is a quality that inspires admiration and even adoration. It is true that these feelings are also within the broad umbrella of what is termed respect, but there is nevertheless a sharp distinction. The attribution of splendor is love centered; we would like to embrace the things we find splendid. The awarding of respect or honor is fear-based. The splendor of God only becomes visible to us when we can penetrate the fog of surface events and perceive His goodness.


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For this reason, the Holy name Adonai stands for the attribute of God's Justice; a pitiless imposition of the Divine vision of reality upon all existence. As we all know, everyone must fit himself or herself into reality. If I don't know how to swim and someone pushes me into the river I will surely drown regardless of whether I deserve such a fate. And if I am trapped in the Twin Towers I will die when they collapse regardless of my guilt or innocence.

But on a deeper level God is more accurately described by His name YHVH, which represents God's attribute of Mercy, just as it describes Him as the source of all being. In terms of the name YHVH, whoever is killed in the Twin Towers does not perish as a consequence of being trapped on a high floor by blind fate, his fate meted out by the harsh impersonal reality of collapsing brick and mortar. God is the source of all being and arranges reality. As this is the case, every arrangement of reality, which is merely another name for being, is directed by Divine intelligence and the ultimate purpose of every event is beneficial. We see fate as arbitrary, because the benefits are often invisible to us as God's more superficial aspect of Adonai always conceals His aspect of YHVH. The gold clothes conceal the white clothes.


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The invisibility of YHVH is inherent to existence in this world. If we were able to trace what we experience as reality directly back to the Source of all Being, there would be no point to being in this world at all. Jewish tradition teaches us that the purpose of sending us to this world is to allow us the opportunity to employ our intelligence to pierce the fog of confusion that surrounds every image that is displayed on the screen of our present reality and penetrate to the true Projector. It is our task to connect all worldly phenomena back to their source. If this connection were readily apparent, it would render the entire exercise of living entirely pointless. This task is referred to as making God One.


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The Talmud neatly encapsulates these ideas in the following passage. On that day God will be One and His name will be One (Zecharia 14:9) Does this imply that He is not One today? Rabbi Acha bar Chanina explained: The next world is not like this one; in this world on good tidings we recite, "Blessed is God, the good and the benevolent" whereas when we receive bad news we recite, "Blessed is God, the Just Ruler." But in the next world we will only recite, "Blessed is God, the good and benevolent" on both.

And His name will be One - what does this mean? Is His name not One today? Rabbi Menachem bar Yitzchak explained: the next world is not like this one; in this world even when His name is written as YHVH it is pronounced as Adonai, whereas in the next world, it will be all one --written and pronounced as YHVH (Talmud, Pesachim, 50a).


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To sum up: reality as we experience it in this world is sculpted by the sort of Divine energy that powers it, emanating from the Divine name Adonai. In our world, Divine power is separated from and often entirely stripped of Divine splendor. As a result, we must often accept the evil tidings that result from the application of God's Justice and submit to the harshness of reality by blessing God as the just ruler.

In contrast, reality in the next world is shaped by the Divine energy emanating from the Holy name YHVH and is full of splendor. When we arrive in the next world, we will perceive all the pain and suffering that we submitted to as pronouncements of God's justice in this world as emanations of His benevolence and mercy, and we will be able to recite "Blessed is God, the good and benevolent" on everything we ever experienced.

The high priest faces the world as God's representative. As such, he wears the clothing of splendor next to his skin, and the clothing of glory on top, facing the outside world. We, who face the high priest from the opposite perspective, only encounter the outer clothing of glory; the inner layer of splendor is invisible to us.


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We find these same ideas reverberating through the Book of Esther. The book opens with a detailed description of Achashverosh's grand party, "when he displayed the riches of his glorious [kavod] kingdom, and the honor of his splendorous [tifereth] majesty for many days." (Esther 1:4) Riches translate into power, and power is kavod, a property of the kingdom, divorced from Achashverosh's own person. Majesty attaches to the king's own person, when it is apparent that he is the embodiment of all power. The display of generosity in the grand party Achashverosh threw was designed not only to reveal the extent of his power, but also to lead the populace past the power to a perception of his majesty and splendor.

Later in the story, (ibid., 6) when Haman comes to Achashverosh to request permission to hang Mordechai, the king asks him, "What shall be done for the man whom the king desires to render splendid?" [the Hebrew word Yakar earlier used in conjunction with tiferet, meaning splendor.] Haman, who as a recipient of the royal ring was already possessed of the king's power, wanted desperately to demonstrate that the exercise of this power was in conformity with the king's own ideas and policies. He wanted everyone to realize that not only was he the possessor of the royal power but was also cloaked in royal majesty. He therefore suggested that the king provide the designated honoree [thinking that it was himself] with his own coronation gear to wear in public.


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As long as he possessed only power, it was inevitable that he would be regarded as a tyrant. The infliction of a holocaust on harmless, defenseless people can hardly be deemed a majestic act. Tyrants are vulnerable to attack. Haman sought the security of being cloaked in Achashverosh's splendor as well as his power. As long as he only had the power, Achashverosh could disown Haman at any time and state that he had entrusted Haman with his power thinking that he would use it benevolently, and indeed Achashverosh subsequently did disown him. Once he wore the royal coronation cloak in public it would be clear that he was also entrusted with Achashverosh's splendor. He could no longer be delegitimized.

But it was Mordechai, who possessed only the Divine splendor that cloaks the great Talmid Chacham or Torah sage, and had no temporal power, who miraculously ended up with the royal coronation clothes, while Haman, the possessor of the power was forced to lead him around, thus demonstrating that all outward worldly power is an outgrowth of inner Divine splendor. The outbreak of joy in Shushan, heralding the final redemption from Haman's threatened holocaust is celebrated when Mordechai, already the possessor of Achashverosh's earthly splendor, [he was the one paraded in the royal coronation clothes] was also cloaked with Achashverosh's earthly power, thus reuniting the Divine Splendor with its outermost manifestation, the secular might of the Persian empire. In the Book of Esther, this reunion is also symbolized by clothes.

"Mordechai left the king's presence clad in royal apparel of turquoise and white with a large gold crown and a robe of fine linen and purple; then the city of Shushan was cheerful and glad. The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor." (Ibid 8:15)


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But these ideas merely float on the surface of a much deeper spiritual pool. The Book of Esther is the record of a foiled holocaust. Esther's story is the record of the first major manifestation of virulent anti-Semitism in the post Sinaic world. It is not by accident that it occurred in conjunction with Israel's very first Exile. The Esther story is one of the seminal events in Jewish history and has much to teach us about the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, the force that has historically made exile so painful.

The notion that power without splendor is not worth pursuing lies at the very heart of Judaism and the Jewish lack of respect for naked power disassociated from goodness is the major spiritual force that powers anti-Semitism. The following passage brilliantly demonstrates this correlation. "That day Haman went out joyful and exuberant. But when Haman noticed Mordechai in the king's gate and that he did not stand up and did not stir before him, Haman was filled with wrath at Mordechai." (ibid., 5:9)

The Gaon of Vilna explains that what incensed Haman was not that Mordechai would not stand up, but that he didn't even stir. The fact that the Jew refuses on principle to stand up for someone merely because he is the possessor of temporal might is a product of ideology. No power on earth can unite all human beings behind a single ideology, and therefore Mordechai's failure to rise did not demonstrate any defect in Haman's achievements.

But Mordechai didn't even stir. His resistance to Haman was much more than the stubborn expression of a defunct ideology. Haman truly didn't impress Mordechai at all. Here is Haman, the regent of the world super power who wields the executive might of the entire planet in his hands, and here is this miserable Jew Mordechai, who no longer has a country he can call his own and survives in exile on the largess of Achashverosh's empire and who nevertheless patronizingly regards him, Haman, the most powerful individual in the world, as one would regard a child excitedly clutching his shiny little toy.


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Haman goes home, gathers his advisors and explains his problem:

"Haman recounted to them the glory of his wealth and of his many sons, and all the ways in which the king had promoted him and elevated him above the officials and royal servants. Haman said, 'Moreover, Queen Esther brought no one but myself to accompany the king to the banquet that she had prepared... Yet all this is worth nothing to me so long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king's gate.'"

We Jews have the power of projecting our lack of awe for the trappings of earthly might to the possessors of this might. We are always looking for the splendor behind the might. When we don't perceive any splendor we are ready to dismiss the whole thing as a waste of effort and a child's toy. Even when we ourselves indulge in the amassment of earthly wealth, we regard such indulgence as nothing more than surrender to our human weakness. We are always searching for the absolute and the eternal.

According to the non-Jewish view, wealth and power are goals to be pursued for their own sake. The nations are out there chasing the 'good life.' After all, without physical plenty, the pursuit of eternal values is impossible. The Jewish people lives in exile among the nations and participates in this pursuit but never assimilates to it. As the Talmud says (Megilah, 12a) even when the Jews bow down to the non-Jewish idol, their submission is so shallow and external that it fools no one.

We do sometimes get carried away and actually enjoy Achashverosh's party. But we never lose the inner contempt for the emptiness of such pursuits, and, as we always have a powerful intellectual voice in whatever society of which we are a part, we constantly threaten the joy that all human beings desire to take in their pleasures and achievements. The Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible about anti-Semitism, teaches us that this stubborn refusal to be impressed by glory lies at the root of all anti-Semitism.

Of course this refusal to be awed takes different facets. It can be observed in the refusal to adapt to Christianity or Islam as much as it is manifest in the refusal to adapt to secular power. It has therefore inspired the hatred of the clergy at least as often as it has driven the Hamans of the world into fits of rage. But the root cause is always the same. There is something in the Jewish soul that holds power without splendor in absolute contempt and has the capacity of diminishing the achievement of the power builders of the world in their own eyes. They are prompted to show us our rightful place. They will teach us to stir as they walk by even if they have to kill us in the process.


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There is a great irony in this. The root cause of Jewish exile is the separation between glory and splendor. Torah law teaches the observant to test all experience in terms of its eternality. Will starting this business, eating this food, reading this book, taking this trip make me a better person? Will it bring me closer to God? Am I treating my fellow Jews with the respect they deserve or am I using people for my own gratification?

Every action is thus justified by its connection to purpose. Life is full of splendor. When Jewish glory is joined to Jewish splendor so is God's. The world makes sense, and we are able to observe that the Divine glory of Adonai is merely a surface layer covering the inner splendor of YHVH by observing the vestments of the High Priest and in the other phenomena associated with the Temple service.

The Temple is destroyed and Jews go into exile when Jews begin to detach their own activities and relationships from the notion of purpose and engage in them for the sake of mere ease or enjoyment. They are then sent to live among the nations who reject them for their very unwillingness to accept life without splendor. When glory and splendor fit tightly together we have the urge to separate them. When they are separated we find that life has no meaning. For good or ill, the vicissitudes of Jewish existence are all centered on this connection between glory and splendor.

May it be God's will that on this Purim we will finally regain Mordechai's garments, and the city of Shushan regain its joy in the final reunion of God's glory with God's splendor.

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