We read very early in Tetzaveh the exquisitely detailed instructions God gives to Moses with regard to the “garments of sanctity” – his be’gdei kodesh, garments that will be made by wise-hearted people to dress the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol.
The Chevra Kadisha continues to use these garments today – by the same name – michnasyim, k’tonet, avnet, and kittle. These are the garments worn by the dead to transform them into their sanctity for their journey ahead. The garments in Tetzaveh, described so beautifully, are more elaborate than the simple white linen or cotton garments worn by the dead today. Yet, it is always a special moment after gently washing a meitah, after pouring nine kavim of water over her, when we then begin to dress her. First we put on her mitznefet, her bonnet, then almost at the same time her michnasayim, trousers, and k’tonet, a long under shirt. We tie bands just under her knees and then we gently pull her kittel over her headdress, tie her avnet and finally tie her apron to the avnet. If it has been her custom to da’aven with a tallit we then wrap the tallit around her, cover her face in lace (a local minhag we learned from the women in Nova Scotia), and then we lift her gently into the aron, wrap a white sheet around her, the sovev, and close the lid.
We look up towards each other’s eyes, and recite a blessing of mechilah, asking forgiveness from the meitah for any indignity we may have committed. In the room where we have been quietly focused on our work, we now thank each other for choosing to be present. We are always so full of gratitude that we had the honour to care for this woman.
The meitah is now ‘as if’ the Kohen Gadol. As is every Jewish woman who comes to us. The Chevra Kadisha knows no distinction of class, of financial background, of education. A Jew is a Jew. Every Jew – in our community –as we are taught millennia ago by Rabban Gamliel – should be treated equally, each with simplicity, modesty and dignity. In burying our dead, we learn how to live life and care for each other.
The chants of Yom Tov wash over me as I think about this honour:
B’Rosh Hashanah yekatayvun…
Who will live and who will die,
Who will reach the ripeness of age?
Who will be taken before their time?
B’Rosh Hashanah yekatayvun. Oo’ve’Yom Kippur yeichataymun….
Who will wash and who will dress,
Who will gasp and who will avert their eye,
Who will refuse and who will say yes.
Who will ask and who will hide.
Tetzaveh reminds us of the holiness and uniqueness of each of our lives. In Torah the holiness of the Kohen Gadol is made recognizable through a very particular form of dress – silver bells and pomegranates on the hem, a jewelled breastplate – an aural and oral vision. Can we envision a similar holiness for all Jews – all of us truly seen as belonging within this nation of priests? Can we bring honour to all in death and in life? Tetzaveh reminds us we have tools of dress, of holiness, and of beauty. It is up to us to see that such holy dignity and beauty is the simple measure of each Jew.
We learn in Torah that God would not reveal God’s Self – not even to Moses. Yet, strangely, we read in Mishpatim that not only did our elders look upon God on Har Sinai, they continued to eat and drink whilst doing so – in joy and delight, as both Ramban and Onkelos teach. God stood on bricks of sapphire – revealing, in an imprinted image of God’s soles, the dazzling beauty of skies and seas.
Would we all learn to delight in our diversity, honouring each person as b’tzelem Elohim.We will read in an upcoming chapter that an artist named Betzalel was chosen to be the artist-in residence, if you will, to oversee and build the Mishkan, the Ark of the Covenant in Bamidbar. The name Betzalelis a contraction of God’s Name – B’tzel El. His name means “animage of, or the protection of God.” So are we all protected by, the shadow of God, so are we all a betzalel, an artist made in a precious sapphire imprint, a fractal, an image of God. As we look at this image of branches of a tree and vessels in a lung, let us recognize that in these fractal images we are one in life and in death.