My dear friend and study partner and I meet at 7:30 AM on Wednesdays to touch base with the weekly Torah portion before the workday begins. Last week’s parashah imparted the description of the priestly robes that were created for Aaron, the brother of Moses, to wear as he carried out the functions of the High Priest in ancient Israel.
As I read the description of some of the accoutrements of the priestly garments (Exodus 27:20- 30:9), my eyes kept filling with tears. I have read these passages any number of times in the past and not had this reaction, so I felt puzzled. I am left with a big “Why?”
The text describes the construction of the garments. The people are to take two lazuli stones and engrave the names of the b’nai Israel on them –the names of the 12 tribes. Aaron was to wear these two stones on the shoulders of his garments, “as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder pieces for remembrance before the Lord.”
Farther along in the passage is a description of a breastplate, to be imbedded with 12 precious stones again representing the tribes of Israel. “Thus Aaron shall wear the breastplate over his heart before the Lord at all times.” Even after reading the passage over several times, I am still deeply affected by it. And it seems to have little to do with any scholarly understanding of the text – rather it touches me as a human being.
The image so deeply imbedded in the text is one of a human being charged with the responsibility for keeping the children of God in the forefront of consciousness as a sacred responsibility - - a deeply moving and colorful image of a profound kind of intercessory prayer - a priestly function.
But I still ask “Why?” Why does this particular ancient text have power to move me to tears every time I pull it into focus? Over the span of a few days an answer begins to come in the form of other questions: “What if I immerse myself in the metaphors of the text?” “What if I see myself putting on the shoulder pieces and the breastplate?” What if I carry on my shoulders and in my heart the children of God? What if they become to me my sacred responsibility? What if? What if? What if?
I yearn to make the leap from the description of priestly garments to a clearer understanding of my responsibility for touching the world through living nonviolence. I circle around and around with it. I don’t want the burden of what is implied in the text. It is way too heavy. And yet, maybe there is a very fundamental step to be taken - - perhaps a clearer way of seeing. The Hebrew scriptures tell of a people called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In my child’s eye, I imagine a whole realm of priests, dressed as Aaron was dressed – with beautiful carved stones on their shoulders and equally beautiful jewel-encrusted breastplates over their hearts – all inscribed with the names of earth’s children – a kingdom of priests whose soul responsibility is to keep the children of the earth foremost in their consciousness.
My old black down jacket with its frequently escaping feathers, my colorful neck-warming scarf, my blue and yellow and black and green polka dotted Thinsulate gloves with matching hat - - I don them each day to make my way through my winter errands. They are a far cry from priestly garments – but they are garments nonetheless and they can be imbued with the same kind of holiness. If I wear them with the same intention of carrying earth’s children into the presence of the Holy they become priestly garments. What if? What if I let the tears that come with seeing the role and garments of Aaron be tears that move me into my own priesthood?
What if I wear these strange looking winter garments with the intention of holding all human beings in a Holy space. Can I then ever countenance any indignity, any harm, any shame or injury, any rejection befalling them? Another step toward living nonviolence? “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” What if???