This article was the winning entry in NFTY’s 2013 Wendy Blickstein Memorial D’var Torah competition.
CINCINNATI (JTA) — What do you do when you get up in the morning? You probably have a morning ritual that you could do with your eyes closed. Take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast and make your way off to school without a second thought.
Parshat Tetzaveh describes the specialized clothing that Aaron and his sons were to wear for their roles as priests. When I read it, I thought it was very interesting that their clothes were described in such elaborate detail. Why was their appearance so important? And although there was detailed description of all the priestly garb, two specific items, the ephod and breastplate, were explained in much greater detail than the rest.
The ephod is said to have “… two lazuli stones engraved on them the names of the sons of Israel: six on one stone and six on the other stone …” Those stones were to be placed on the shoulders of all the priests. But why the sons of Israel? Why not use two of God’s names, say, perhaps Adonai on one shoulder and Elohim on the other? That way, no matter which way he turned, he would see a name of God and know to whom he was offering sacrifice. Instead with these priestly garments, the priest sees the names of the children of Israel, the names of the people right in front of him, as he does his holy work.
The same names are also to be engraved on the breastplate that Aaron is to “carry over his heart, as a remembrance before the eternal at all times.” As I read that verse, the word “remembrance” lingered with me. What was the priest supposed to remember?
Everywhere Aaron looks he sees the children of Israel: to the left or right, sitting on his shoulders, down, resting on his heart, and before him, in the people themselves. God wanted to make sure that the priest would always know why he was performing the rituals. God chose him to be the messenger to God, but the message comes from the rest of the Israelites. The priests are to serve their people, even while they are offering sacrifices to God. Aaron is supposed to remember that he is doing everything he does for the people of Israel. In addition, when the Israelites look upon Aaron as he stands before them, they see their names and know that he is doing all that he does for them. This remembrance is not only for the priest, but also for the people.
Aaron’s morning ritual must have meant a lot to him. As he dressed for work, he saw those names all over his garments. That clothing reminded him of his larger purpose. And therefore, his morning ritual could not have been automatic or mundane. When he puts on the ephod and breastplate, he is forced to remember why he is getting up and that his work is important.
The Cohanim, or priests, are no longer the sole leaders of the Jewish people. In fact, we would come to be known as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
From this we learn that everyone has the opportunity to make a contribution to our community. There is no greater evidence of that than in NFTY. Just by being here this weekend, you have all shown your dedication to Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. Whether we are running a Purim carnival fundraiser in our local TYGs or running a tikkun olam program, we are the face of all NFTY and the Jewish people. When adults look at us they see themselves. They see their past and a bright future. It is our job to lead through example, to reflect what we want others to see not only in ourselves but in the Jewish people.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a bunch of teens, but we always put our best foot forward and try to have before us an imaginary ephod and breastplate, reminding us that we always serve, and that we are the future of the Jewish people.
I remember last year, sitting in the back of the room at the URJ biennial listening to President Barack Obama. He turned to our seats and gave NFTY a shout-out. That was an amazing experience, but what he said afterward really stuck with me.
“Young people are gonna lead the way, and they are leading the way,” he said. (Obama, URJ Biennial, 2011)
We ARE leading the way, just as Aaron and the priests led the people of Israel thousands of years ago. We are the Aarons of our generation, chosen by God but acting on our own.
It is time for us to put on our ephod and breastplate. I am not suggesting the physical garments described in Tetzaveh, but instead to shape our own metaphoric ephod and breastplate. We each need to create our own ritual that will remind each of us of the reasons that we are NFTYites and why we are Jews. This could be anything, from saying the Sh’ma when you awake or kissing your mezuzah when you walk out the door. It could be reciting a favorite verse of the Bible or wearing a yarmulke.
Whatever it is, add it to the ritual that you do every morning, so that you remember that you are leading the Jewish people and that your work is important. That way, wherever you look — into the face of a friend, the needs of a stranger or even in the mirror — in every direction you might look, you will see the reasons that you care and, perhaps, even glimpse the presence of God.
(Jacob Price, a junior in high school, is a member of the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati and a member of the NFTY Ohio Valley Region. Translations were taken from “The Torah: A Modern Commentary," Revised Edition, Union for Reform Judaism.)