Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump

Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10  Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump 


Howard Adelman

Last week in the commentary on the mishkan, I suggested that the Israelites were given directions to build the portable sanctuary for two complementary reasons, so that God would no longer have to live alone on a mountain top but could dwell among his own people. The second reason was to permit God to be close at hand to observe whether the Israelites were transgressing, a suggestion which may bother those who believe God is omnipresent. Further, I also gave voice to a belief that the sanctuary was built with such richness as both a mode of wealth distribution as well as to build the assets of a central depository that could serve as the central bank for the nation, but it was built by voluntary donations, not by the payment of compulsory taxes

In this week’s portion, we move from the design of the portable building and its artifacts to the costume designer’s function for characters requiring and operating under an eternal light fed by the most expensive oil of all available to them, olive oil. The garments worn by the priests are designated as a robe and breaches made of the finest linen and traversed by a sash. Can you imagine? The Israelites were struggling to survive in the desert, yet they were obligated to find just the right dyes to colour a sash and the various vestments – blue and gold, purple and crimson. The High Priest was also to wear an efod that seems similar to the fez worn by Turks before the secular revolution in Turkey instigated by Ataturk. The clothing was intended to enhance dignity and use adornment to set the priests apart from the populace.

The costumes are intended to enhance and communicate the roles they play and the status they were to have. They are ceremonial, not functional. They are fixed and not varied and adapted for different occasions. The roles are to be as permanent in time as the eternal light. Then the portion prescribes how Aaron and his four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, are to be inducted into their priestly roles and how incense was to be burned on the golden altar. All glitz and pomp, but, as I will try to show, not godawful! The alternative would turn out to be much worse.

Look at the description of the breastplate worn by the priests – trimmed in gold with four rows of precious stones, birthstones for each of the tribes – carnelian, chrysolite, turquoise, agate, topaz, onyx, jacinth, amethyst, beryl, lapis lazuli, emerald and jasper. And on the breastplate, the options in divination – Urim and Thumamin, Yes or No. Light or Night. The enlightened or the forces of darkness, despair and desperation. The irony is that these would be determinations and judgments on how to handle internal divisions and not just commandment of whether to go or not to go to war, whether God endorsed the war or not. Tetzaveh is about command and control but the stage was being set for a rebellion.

The most notable thing about this portion is not the presence of detailed designer’s directions, but the absence of Moses. He is not even mentioned. The name of Aaron, however, is mentioned 22 times. This requires some explanation. The sacred must be understood.

Sacred is associated with that which is worthy of worship and entitled to be venerated. Not just respected, but worshiped. Though often used interchangeably as synonyms, there is a great deal of difference between respect and veneration. Veneration and worship are actions. Respect is an attitude, like gratitude versus saying, “Thanks.” You have respect for…You do not say I have veneration for or I have worship for. The difference is significant. You respect someone for the qualities they exhibit. You venerate someone for the role they play. In respect, it is your attitude that is elevated. In veneration, it is the other who is elevated. Veneration elicits reverence which so easily slips into devotion and even idolatry. Respect acknowledges the dignity observed in the other. Parents and teachers deserve respect, but they only become recipients when they earn that recognition.

Respect entails holding another in esteem, but does not imply deference to that other. Disrespect entails a disregard for another’s authority, status or accomplishments. There is no such thing as disveneration or disworship. One pays one’s last respects to the dead; one does not (or, is not expected to) venerate or worship the dead. We are expected to respect parents and teachers, not venerate them. And the clue is that we venerate what we hold to be sacred, what is to be set aside and raised on high. And here is the heterodox suggestion. The sacred is that which is preserved and set aside as very special, but also raised high and out of reach. The sacred is something we put away, not something we want to or need to or should live with.

This is what is happening to Aaron and his sons. They are being given high honours and high formal roles and are being retired from their positions as military commanders married to religious convictions. It is appropriate preparation for the wars to come that will require professional military leadership. All Aaron and his sons can do is indicate whether God commands they go to war or not, whether God is on the side of the Israelites in a specific conflict. The execution of war will be left to the professionals.

Eventually, Jews would leave the role of priests and the need for temples far behind as rabbis were sent out to live among and with the people and teach them about the divine as He reveals Himself in the Torah. When God said he wanted to live in the midst of his people, He was confining and raising the status of the priests and honours bestowed upon them so that they could feel His presence. But if God Himself was simply confined to the mishkan, He would not really be living among the people.

God up high on the mountain top inspired awe and wonder. God living in the midst of his people risked becoming too familiar and accepted and even treated as an object of indifference, and worse, disdain. Aaron, on the other hand, as a military commander had power, and the best way to take away his power was to promote him to an honorific and ceremonial function. So as God was coming down to live amidst His people, the religious functions tied to military roles were being disaggregated. Aaron was being raised up as a mode of retiring him. What we want to retire, we preserve, put away and raise up so it can no longer threaten or impose itself upon us. We create a sacred realm and identify a sacred clan to preserve it.

So where is Moses? Why does he seem to have no part in what is going on? Moses was the one who convinced God to come down from on high. It was a gamble. To bring the sacred into the secular world was being balanced by creating a sacred world where military men who had the potential to initiate a coup could assume responsibilities for the polity, but only formal and ceremonial ones. They were not responsible either for the wellbeing of the nation or any longer for its security, except in the most general way in determining whether a war was to be sanctioned. Military power had to be neutralized by giving the generals honorific titles, costumes and roles.

So God had to come down from the mountain, not only because He was alone and needed human contact, not only so He could be the close-at-hand and observe the behavior of the members of the nation he had chosen and now was opting to live among, but to assign a ceremonial function to retired military commanders. The change would prove to be a big gamble that, as we shall see next week, almost went totally awry.

Sacred is opposed to the secular. It is also set opposite the profane. Moses was a stutterer like King George VI of Britain and was definitely not an orator. He was very flawed as an oral communicator, but the benefit, the great side effect, was that he introduced a reliance on written commands and prescriptions. The rule of law rather than the rule of power would be supreme. The threat that an Israelite like Aaron might copy the pattern of Egypt and impose the rule of force had been removed. But Moses by himself was not very inspiring. Not only could he not articulate his thoughts and instructions clearly and concisely, but he was fraught with other psychological and social disabilities.

Moses was a man full of inner rage, both at his sense of personal abandonment while not fully being accepted as a royal, though raised as a royal with a sense of entitlement. But this was married to a sense of injustice and resentment that exploded like a volcano when he saw how an ethnic cousin was being treated by a member of the Praetorian guard. His response was not so much of empathy, but an automatic response because of projection and identification. Moses, however, was a coward and ran away rather than either face the music or lead a rebellion.

Moses ran off and married a shiksa. After a dozen or so years, he abandoned her and their two children to return and lead his people in battle against their oppressors. He had to lead, not by example, but by magic, by wonders that inspired awe in his own people as well as in the hearts of his enemies. As a leader, Moses proved very dependent on others, especially on Aaron as his Commander-in-Chief, and on a foreigner who happened to be his father-in-law. What kind of leader delegated legal enforcement and interpretation to others?  What kind of leader could he be when he could no longer lead with shock and awe to back him up, no longer lead with the high religious authority or the prowess in commanding soldiers to guard his backside? What kind of leader would he be when he was unavailable to the ordinary Israelite to hear complaints and mediate interpersonal conflicts up until 2:00 a.m. in the morning?

Well a challenger would emerge propelled by bombast and bluff and with no respect given to what was considered sacred by the upper echelons of the nation. But what would be the appeal? The challenger would have to be one of their own, not a cross-breed or rather a cross-bred. He would have to be raised from among their own kind, one with whom they felt they could identify, even if he happened to be wealthier. But not a plutocrat, not one of the ones who donate their wealth to the mishkan to give the retired would-be powers fancy clothes and fancy titles. The Israelites had to be writhing with dissension and despair. After all, however bad it was in Egypt and however discriminated against they had been, they had lived side-by-side the Egyptians. They had been carpenters and stone masons, primitive plumbers and hard-working labourers, seamstresses and nannies. Now who were they – refugees without jobs, without any use for their skills, without self-respect?

In the meanwhile, one of their own had surrendered to the plutocrats and agreed to be installed as part of a new Camelot, primitive perhaps in comparison, but intended to rival that of the Pharaoh. Further, what had been promised them would not be delivered later that year, but it would take two generations. They would not see the benefits of such radical change in their lifetimes. They were ripe for the politics of envy and resentment, given fuller acceleration by a shift from oral rule by a chief to that of the written law. This communication revolution was powerful and disrupting, for no longer could they go to the sheik and speak to him personally to ask for an intervention to help deal with a problem. And who was their leader? A multicultural Moses without deep roots in the society in which they were raised!

They no longer had to fear the power of Aaron. He had been made impotent. Their rich compatriots had bet on him rather than them and built a portable Pharaonic throne. They were now irrelevant. Sacrifices had to be made of bull and ram, and of a lamb every single morning and evening. All that excellent food for the priests and a God they could not see nor even get near for the priests were intermediaries. Moses had consolidated his political power only to now appear naked before them without awe and wonders to intimidate them. Further, they were about to face real enemies who would challenge them directly and threaten to destroy them. Were they not better off retreating into a self-protected enclave manned by defensive barriers? The politics of nostalgia for a lost world was growing at the expense of hope for a new one.

Is it any wonder that they might look for a new god, a new order, one far more visible than the invisible hand that seemed to be controlling their lives? Is it any wonder that they might appreciate a new leader who spoke their language of resentment? Is it any wonder they might be ready to shift their loyalties to someone who promised to restore a semblance of their previous security? The Israelites were refugees, homeless wanderers in social disarray and suffering enormous psychological stresses. If our contemporary refugee camps are any indication, the Israelite camps were being infiltrated by small groups from the surrounding areas even poorer than they were and under greater threat. They were facing an unknown and very threatening future and had lived through a traumatic past. Sure, Moses had provided food and water when it was most needed. But would this welfare continue? How could it continue? Would Moses retain his magic powers? And why go to war against Canaanites? They were just defending themselves. It was a foreign war they had no business engaging in and, anyway, would likely lose. And all this because they were being led by a half-bred foreigner, but one no longer in possession of the power to impose his will.

Grim pessimism would replace the politics of hope. All received beliefs and entitlements were at risk. No more obeisance to the rich plutocrats who ruled over them. No more trust in the words of a God they could neither hear nor see. The Israelites were becoming tired of seeing themselves as losers when just a short time ago they had been such tremendous winners. The dream of conquering a promised land seemed totally at risk. Moses would soon be viewed as an alien and threatening outsider rather than one who delivered the people from slavery. Moses’ words would soon ring hollow.

The Israelites were ripe for an internal rebellion.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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