Werq it, Aaron!
A Drash on Tetzaveh
February 23, 2013
Our parsha this week is called Tetzaveh, which means ‘you shall command’ or ‘You shall instruct.’ It begins ‘As for you, you shall instruct the children of Israel…,’ addressed to Moses. And in the midrash, much is made of that ‘as for you,’ as we shall see.
Moses has been up on that mountain, Sinai, for weeks now; the people wait below. Their great encounter with God is a memory. God has given Moses detailed plans for the Mishkan, a sanctuary, wherein God may dwell among the people. Moses must have writer’s cramp already, from taking down all those instructions, but without hesitating God turns to the priesthood, a whole new concept, and Moses soldiers on. Meanwhile, down below, among the people, led by his older brother, Aaron, you know what’s starting to happen. That comes next week in the story, but all of this stands in some kind of tension with the upcoming debacle of the Golden Calf.
‘As for you, you shall bring forward your brother, Aaron,’ says God to Moses, repeating that construction, ‘as for you,’ and announces that Aaron is to be the High Priest. Now God has been talking to Moses and no one else for weeks already, so the midrash wonders why suddenly does god repeat ‘as for you’ here and here only? Because, they speculate, Moses has every expectation that he will receive the honor of being the High Priest. He performed that role in Chapter 24 when he blessed the people and splattered them with the blood of consecration. And he’s Moses, for God’s sake. He’s done all the heavy lifting for the whole story. He must be disappointed says the midrash. Why isn’t he being honored with the priesthood? Why is it going to Aaron and his sons and their sons forever, while Moses just goes on being, well, Moses.
There are many midrash asserting that this is some sort of punishment for Moses’ resistance to God’s wishes way back at the burning bush – you remember, he says I can’t speak to the people or Pharaoh because I am of uncircumcised tongue? But the midrash I like most focuses on a certain justice between siblings. Aaron is the older brother; and these are primogeniture times, so by expectation the leadership role should have gone to him. But again the primal pattern of Torah has been repeated. From Abel to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph, and now Moses, the younger brother prevails. But the midrash says that Aaron has not only not resented Moses’ primacy, he has rejoiced in it. And now God says, it is your turn Moses, you must humble yourself and rejoice in Aaron’s elevation. And Moses does. We always hear about Moses’ humility. He is called the most humble of men. I admit I have been more than a little cynical about that humility. Humility and greatness together are a rare combination in human history. Well, it’s here that Moses learns it. So say the midrashists.
The details of the vestments of Aaron and his sons are amazing. I don’t know if you read the fashion blog www.tomandlorenzo.com ; they bill themselves as fabulous and opinionated, and they are. They comment brilliantly and dishily on movie stars on red carpets, Downton Abbey, Mad Men and Michelle Obama. Well they would have a ball with this outfit. ‘Werq it, Aaron!’ The breastplate is still echoed in our torah decoration, as is my favorite item, the bells at the hem of the skirt, alternating with pomegranates of blue-violet, purple and scarlet; a bell of gold, a pomegranate, a bell of gold, a pomegranate, all the way around. So not only is Aaron bedecked awesomely from far above his head all the way down to his slippers (red Prada?), but also long before you see him, you will hear him coming.
I once saw a play by Jacques Marivaux, a great 18th C French playwright. The theme was whether humans are better in civilization or in nature, a big topic then … and now. At the beginning of this production, a lovely young women entered wearing only a simple slip, and just stood center stage. Then servants, many of them, came and went, dressing her in layer after layer, a la Marie Antoinette. Endless undergarments under a vast skirt, platform heels, long sleeves, gloves, a jewel encrusted bodice, and topped off by a 3-foot high wig. So by the end she was awesome, but completely unrecognizable as an individual. It could have been anyone in there. So it is with Aaron, the clothes make the man, or at least the role. And these garments and this role is to be passed on to his sons and generation to generation forever.
Contrast this with Moses. Avivah Zornberg, our Torah teacher this year through her great books on Genesis and Exodus, points out that in the whole of Torah, the only mention of Moses’ clothing is when God orders him at the burning bush to take off his sandals; ‘you are on holy ground.’ You might call his staff raiment as well, so you have sandals and a staff. Otherwise we know nothing about what Moses wore or even looked like. I know I know, Charleton Heston, but really that’s Cecil B. DeMille, who had God complex for sure, but was not God. So for a moment remember to forget Charleton Heston, along with Amalek, and contemplate the radical absence of physicality in this our greatest leader. This man who dominates four of the five books of Torah, who communes with God, who speaks and speaks, despite his uncircumcised tongue, is physically utterly anonymous. Was he tall or short, bearded or clean shaven, fat or thin. Did he differentiate himself in dress in any way from the mass of his people, did he retain any trapping of his life in Pharaoh’s court or his life as a shepherd before the burning bush? It’s all for us, each of us in our own mind and soul to imagine. In contrast to Aaron, Moses stands as if naked before us; what King Lear calls a ‘poor, bare, forked animal.’
And his radical anonymity goes farther, much farther. Much is made in the midrash of Moses the motherless child. He loses his birth mother twice, first at the Nile and then, after she becomes his wet nurse, at his weaning. And then he loses his stepmother, the princess, daughter of Pharaoh, who finds him in the Nile, when he turns against Egypt and joins his people, Israel. But he is also fatherless. He never knows his birth father, Amram. And Pharaoh, the father of the princess, becomes his step grandfather, but Moses rejects him big time, in maybe the most violent and successful Oedipal overthrow in history.
So Moses is an orphan many times over, but it goes farther than that. He leaves no legacy in any genetic sense. His sons, Gershom and Eliezar, disappear as well. They are named and then forgotten. Moses passes nothing on to them. Aaron gets not only gorgeous vestments, and the highest place in the hierarchy, he gets to pass all this this on. in a midrash Aaron actually dies, just after watching Moses take off his vestments and dressing his eldest son, also named Eliezar, in them. Aaron has to die, but he goes knowing he will live on through his sons.
Moses, however, passes on nothing, he has no line. He is an orphan both before and after. An orphan in history. And invisible. We not only don’t know what he looked like, or what he wore, we don’t even know where he is buried. He is the iconic charismatic leader, unique unto himself. And if he is humble, as Torah and the midrash insist, it connects to his having to bear the burden of his isolation.
Aaron, on the other hand becomes the visible, practical leader and continuity of our religion, our peoplehood. Until now he has been anonymous. We hear that he can talk well, but he never does; at least he is never quoted directly. If he talks for Moses to pharaoh, it is always quoted in Torah as coming from Moses. He has to grin and bear his brother’s primacy. But now he is elevated, bedecked, and becomes the living embodiment of what Max Weber called ‘the routinization of charisma.’ Moses may be the charismatic figure, but charisma won’t cut it over time. There has to be a structure if the message is to survive. And that structure will be built around Aaron and his sons, not Moses. Moses must remain isolated, anonymous, humble, and as naked as that girl in the slip at the beginning of Marivaux’s play.
When I was about ten years old, I moved with my family for the fifth time in my young life, from a small town in Minnesota to Boston. And on the first day of sixth grade I wore a nice new pair of blue jeans and a fresh T shirt, like we did in Minnesota. But this was Boston in the 1950’s, and every other boy was wearing wool pants with razor creases and a white button down shirt. The teacher looked askance, the other kids snickered. And for the whole semester at least I was stuck with jeans and T-shirts or Midwestern flannel, because my parents could not, would not afford a whole new set of clothes, just for the sake of fitting in. In that term I learned the power of costume. Each day’s humiliation made me more sensitive to the details of how one can both fit in and stand out with nothing but the clothes on your back. Maybe that lesson made me become an actor, certainly partly, and I have lived in many costumes since and experienced the power of raiment to define us, to elevate us, to humble us.
Tonight is Purim. Its all about redefining ourselves for a moment by changing costume. Tonight I will throw away my park slope jeans and practical shoes, my Kolot kippah, and emerge as Dottie Blue, Queen of the Avengers. And I’m sure all of you will run home after services and, like me, spend the afternoon preparing and donning your costumes for tonight. Our parsha, a meditation on the power of costume, appears at the perfect moment in our cycle of holidays; it is the perfect segue into Purim.
Who will you be?
 Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginnings of Desire: Reflections on Genesis and The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (Shocken Books, 1995 and 2001)