Torah Ecology: Tetzaveh 2017 (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)

High Priest garments – Public Domain

Tetzaveh (Ex 27:20-28:43) continues the narrative that began in Yitro describing the structure of a local community, Israel, and relationships within it and with other “domains,” transcendence and creation. As in Terumah, which describes construction of the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting, Terumah unfolds in seven tasks centered on preparing the priests to offer sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites:

  • Ex 28:1-5        Raw materials given to artisans with instructions
  • Ex 28:6-14     Ephod with 12 names of sons of Israel on lapis
  • Ex 28:15-30  Breast plate / Urim & Thumim with 12 names of                                         sons of Israel on precious gems
  • Ex 28:31-39  Clothing
  • Ex 29:1-25     Sacrifices – portions for G-d (burned on the altar)
  • Ex 29:26-46  Sacrifices – portions for priests (eaten outside Tent)
  • Ex 30:1-10     Incense altar (in Tent)

The first three sections deal with preparing the high priest to act as a representative on behalf of Israel. The stones on the lapis lazuli on Aaron’s shoulders and the gemstones on his breast plate are a reminder “before the Lord” (לְזִכָּרֹן לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה) of whom Aaron represents.

The last three sections deal with different points of interaction between the priests and G-d.  The middle section, Ex 28:31-39, deals with preparing the high priest for this interaction.

Most significant in this middle section is the protective gear, including a military reference when discussing the preparation of the “hole” for the head in the blue robe of the ephod, “as if it were a coat of mail” (כְּפִי תַחְרָא יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ). This same robe has a woven pomegranate design alternating with bells of gold which Aaron wears when he goes into the holy place and when he comes out so he “will not die” (וְלֹא יָמוּת). Who would kill him? Apparently G-d, if G-d were surprised. Finally, Aaron wears a mitre or head dress with a band of gold which rests on his forehead displaying the words, “Holy to the Lord” (קֹדֶשׁ לַיהוָה).

The word “holy” (קֹדֶשׁ) is interesting and multi-valenced. Other translations for it include sanctified, consecrated, devoted, forbidden. It is the word used to refer to (cult) prostitutes in the worship of Baal and Astarte. The implication of the word in this context seems to be that the priest is consecrated to G-d, a powerful and dangerous position, interacting with G-d on behalf of G-d’s people, the Israelites. Only protective gear and cautious, well-prepared entry to the Tent of Meeting save the priest from death and allow him to accomplish his task.

While donning military gear to meet with transcendence might seem strange to us today, consider for a moment how strange the complete absence of awe and even fear in our interaction with transcendence must seem to others.

To imagine that transcendent reality is cozy and loving fails to account for death, decay and evil in the world. It fails to account for the the fact that for so many innocent creatures, human and non-human, life is brutal. Blood and death are taboo topics in the western secular world, and we generally make certain bloodshed and violence occur outside of our line of vision.  We are blissfully unaware of the violence and brutality behind what is on our plate at each meal, our most basic and constant interaction with the rest of creation and with transcendence.

It is only this separation from the process of life and death, from evil and brutality and bloodshed that allows us to imagine meetings with a transcendent reality that has no element of shock and awe, no element of that which is unknowable and incomprehensible, no aura of danger alongside caring and compassion.

Ancient Israelites were no strangers to organic decay, death and brutality. As with other peoples throughout history, religion was a critical tool for confronting and understanding the meaning of their lives in the context of these realities.  At its most basic level, the sacrificial cult magnified the exchange between life and death involved in every meal.


In Tetzaveh, there are two rounds of sacrifices, the first including a bull and two rams along with bread, oil and wine, each day for seven days, and the second, a bull and two yearling lambs perpetually, one in the morning, the second at twilight. These lamb sacrifices are also accompanied by bread, oil and wine offerings.

Although the priesthood is hereditary, any son of Aaron’s who inherits the high priesthood must engage in the seven day ceremony, which includes several parts: ablution, investiture, anointing with oil and sacrifices. All sacrifices occur in the Tabernacle at the altar.

The narrative of the sacrifices involves two distinct parts, the first relating what and how to sacrifice to G-d. This section is permeated with blood imagery. The blood of the bullock for the sin offering is put on the altar, the rest poured out at its base. The bullock is burned outside the camp. The first ram is burned in its entirety on the altar as a burnt offering. The blood from the second ram is put on Aaron’s right ear and his sons’ right ears, on their right thumbs and right big toes. The rest is dashed on the altar, then sprinkled, with the anointing oil, on Aaron’s and his sons’ vestments.

The second narrative section of the sacrifices relates what the priests consume as their portion and how they should consume it. In Exodus 29:26-27, Aaron and his sons receive the right breast and thigh of the ram of ordination, the second ram, the sacrifice of well-being. They boil the flesh in the sacred precinct, at the door of the Tent of Meeting. The blood narrative remains with the sacrifice on the altar — here, at the door to the Tent, we have the priests consuming boiled (and presumably bloodless) meat.

Going forward, they are to sacrifice a bullock each day as a sin offering, burning it outside the camp, and two yearling lambs, one in the morning and one at twilight, each with flour, oil and wine, as a regular burnt offering.

In this latter part, the narration of the priestly portion, the number seven repeats three times in seven verses, Ex 29:30-37. In addition, there are two references to the Passover event, or in the first instance, to an idea which the sacrifice has in common with the Passover event. The first reference is the manner of eating — the priestly portion cannot be left until morning, and if some remains, it must be burned. The second is explicit in Ex 29:46 when G-d says G-d will consecrate Aaron and his sons and the altar so the Israelites will know G-d is their G-d, the one who brought them from Egypt.


This seventh narrative section concerns the incense altar, 1-1/2 feet square and 3 feet tall, built of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. Its placement (Ex 30:6) is noteworthy: “before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the ark-cover that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee” (לִפְנֵי הַפָּרֹכֶת, אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת–לִפְנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת, אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לְךָ, שָׁמָּה.).

The incense altar, in case we are uncertain, is very near the ark of the testimony, where G-d meets with the Israelites through their intermediary, the high priest, in the holiest place. Here Aaron burns incense in the morning and at twilight when he tends and lights the lamps.

The altar, like Aaron, is “most holy to the Lord” (קֹדֶשׁ-קָדָשִׁים הוּא, לַיהוָה),  perhaps even holier since Aaron is marked simply, “holy to the Lord” (קֹדֶשׁ לַיהוָה). In contrast with the brutal scene at the altar, there is no blood here except once during the year (Yom Kippur) when Aaron purifies the incense altar with blood on its horns.

In case we miss the point, the text (Ex 30:9) confirms, “Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt-offering, nor meal-offering; and ye shall pour no drink-offering thereon” (לֹא-תַעֲלוּ עָלָיו קְטֹרֶת זָרָה, וְעֹלָה וּמִנְחָה; וְנֵסֶךְ, לֹא תִסְּכוּ עָלָיו).


In Terumah, which details the structure of the Tabernacle and within it the Tent of Meeting, we learned that “the placement of the altar with its flesh-hooks and the structure of the narrative tell us of a space in worship that hangs precariously between creation and transcendence, life and death, a space in which every moment requires our consciousness that we are part of a divine transaction.”

In Tetzaveh, we learn that the sacrifice on the altar occurs in that same intermediary space, through the offices of an intermediary, the priest, at the boundary moments between light and dark. The sacrifice, at the dangerous and brutal boundary of life and death, occurs in the outer areas of the Tabernacle.

In the Ohel, the Tent of Meeting, there is no animal sacrifice, no blood, just the words and the incense, perhaps masking the stench from the outer area. The high priest enters with awe and trembling for a meeting, bearing on his shoulders and at his heart reminders that he represents the sons of Israel. He wears bells to alert G-d of his movements, a head band proclaiming he is consecrated to G-d and a mail-like garment for protection. Nonetheless he is completely vulnerable to the overwhelming power of transcendence.

Like the leper cleansed in Lev 14:14-18, the blood of a sacrifice placed on the right ears, thumbs and toes of the priests serves as part of their purification for the priesthood. Blood, like food, signifies the boundary between transcendence and the world of creation. Blood represents life and death; it makes impure and it purifies. It serves an intermediary function, and the ears, thumbs and toes represent the boundaries of a body, echoing themes prominent in sacrifice.

As a ritual, the sacrifice enhances an every day occurrence, a meal. It includes meat and meal and oil and wine and involves an exchange between the transcendent and the human. In this, G-d receives certain portions of the sacrifice and the priests receive certain portions for acting on behalf of Israel. Death and brutality, love and compassion intermingle at the boundary in a transaction mediated by the priest.

These chapters are a statement about how an infinite G-d can enter finite space, how human beings relate to the rest of creation and to transcendence. It is a powerful statement of intimacy, fear, life, death, vulnerability and compassion.

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