I hope this email finds you well. Last week was quite the jam-packed, rainy and nearly sleepless week! My dad was visiting last week so we were busy with Torah study at Pardes, touring the country, shopping (of course) and visiting with family and friends. We had a great time!! But like my dad said, “I need a vacation after my vacation!”
In addition, this past week I had the opportunity to do something really irregular and exciting. Yaffa Epstein, an incredible Talmud teacher at Pardes, took me to the Archives at the Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram, to examine old manuscripts of the Talmud. Before we were even able to look at the microfilm of this 900-year old manuscript, we had to carefully insert the microfilm and slowly examine the words in order to find the section of the Talmud (Tractate Ketubot – dealing with marriage contracts, etc.) we wanted to investigate. Once the microfilm was set up, we scrolled through a particular passage in Ketubot and compared this old manuscript to the one which is most commonly used today. As we studied the microfilm, we found emendations, abbreviated words, missing phrases — not to mention an entirely different presentation of the material. (Most Talmuds we use today are printed en masse in a particular format known as Vilna Shas, but this manuscript was handwritten on parchment.)
At one point, I found myself sitting in front of this microfilm and wondering: What is the big deal?! Just show me a picture of the manuscript and be done with it! More than that, why should I — or anyone else, for that matter — care what are the differences between our copies of the Talmud and this 900-year old manuscript? Does it make a difference if a word is shortened or a letter is added here in there?
In asking this question, I was quickly reminded of last week’s parsha.
Parshat Teztaveh deals with many of the garments that the High Priest, namely Aaron, would wear in the Tabernacle during his cultic service. The Torah discusses at great length the type of cloth, shape, colour and size of these priestly garments. For all of the visual learners out there, see the picture in the link below.
I mean, the High Priest has everything from an elaborate breastplate to special undergarments! Why is the Torah telling us all of this information? Especially in an age without Temple Service, how are we to make sense or find meaning in this week’s parsha?
I must credit my dear friend and colleague in the Pardes Educators Program, Amy Martin, with this insight. She said to me, as we were walking to school the other day (I’m paraphrasing): You know, Tamara, maybe the point of the parsha is to notice the details and recognize how important they are! Like you know how we like to have flowers for Shabbat or a special tablecloth? It’s the same kind of thing.
It was clear to me that Amy had hit the nail on the head: This is without a doubt a powerful message that is conveyed in the parsha!
As Amy was speaking, I was reminded of my mother’s fashion-related words of wisdom: “Accessory makes the outfit, Tamara!”
Looking back at my experience at Hebrew University this week, studying nearly millennium-old Talmudic manuscripts, I am able to appreciate the nuances and subtle differences between them. Sacred texts and sacred objects are not sanctified because there is holy “pixy dust” inside of them. They are sacred because we invest in them a kind of sacred status. We hope that they can elevate our mundane experiences into exalted ones. Therefore, a sacred object or place or text is spiritually uplifting if we will it to do so.
I believe that Parshat Tetzaveh is urging us to find objects or texts that have already been prescribed as “sacred” and connect to them on a deeper level. And for those of us who are not moved by the objects and texts, I encourage us all to find one which uplifts us and enhance our Shabbat experience. I plan to do the same!