Tetzaveh – What is Holiness?
by Salvador Litvak – Feb. 8, 2014 – 8 Adar I, 5774
Eight weeks ago, Moses entered the Torah narrative when we read the first parshah (weekly Torah portion) of the book of Exodus. From that point on, his name appears in every parshah until the end of the Torah, with one exception: this week’s parshah, Tetzaveh.
Surprisingly, this parshah always falls out during the week of Moses’ birth and death. Traditionally, this coincidence is employed to teach that Judaism is not a cult of personality. We do not worship Moses, nor do we need him to intermediate between G-d and us.
That’s important to remember because what’s presently happening in the Torah narrative is that Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah, while down below, we, the children of Israel, are getting very nervous. We’re afraid that Moses will not return, and that the overwhelming Holiness we experienced just a few weeks ago during the Revelation will be our only channel to G-d in the future.
Recall that we said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” (Ex. 20:16)
That fear of being overwhelmed by G-d’s holiness is so strong that when Moses is just a few hours late coming down from Mt. Sinai in next week’s parshah, we panic and create a golden calf. We don’t create the calf to worship it; we create it to replace Moses as an intermediary between us and G-d’s Holiness.
What a tragic mistake that turns out to be.
And that’s why this week’s parshah is all about the proper way to approach holiness. The Hebrew root for holiness is spelled kuf-dalet-shin, and it appears 31 times in our parshah. Kodesh, kadosh, kedoshim, nekadesh, holy, sanctify, sanctuary – over and over we learn that our priests, our altar, our sacrifices, our tent of meeting, indeed our mission as the Jewish people is to pursue holiness.
When we reach Leviticus 20:26, this commandment will be made explicit: “You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am Holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine.”
Why are we so afraid of holiness? Why do we resent people who are holier-than-thou? How do we obey this commandment to be holy?
In other words, what… is… holiness?
It’s a confusing question because holiness appears so often in Scripture and Rabbinic literature. The kodesh root appears in the Talmud 9,324 times. There are only 2,711 pages in the Talmud, so that’s a whole lot of attention to this idea. The problem is that the word means different things at different times.
In our parshah, we learn that those who are both wise-hearted and filled with a spirit of wisdom are capable of making holy garments. These garments will in turn make the priests who wear them holy (Ex. 28:3).
Now, wouldn’t you think that the priests become holy first, and then they transfer their holiness to the clothes?
A few verses later, we learn that we must also anoint them with holy oil, create a holy altar within a holy sanctuary, offer holy sacrifices upon it, and place a gold band upon the high priest’s head that reads, “Holy to G-d.”