Exodus 27:20 to 30:10
The text commands the Israelites to mount a lamp in front of the Ark of the Pact … then describes the vestments of the priest. Even thought the text seems remote, both have an impact on our sanctuaries today.
At first, one wonders what impact this information presented has upon contemporary Jews…. Actually, the text is the basis for two of the most visual items in our sanctuaries.
First, we note that the parsha starts with the following instructions regarding the lamp or Ner Tamid located near the Tabernacle’s Ark of the Pact. Note that the priests are responsible for this lamp.
“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.” (Ex. 27:20-21)
And so we begin this parsha with the text that forms the basis for the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) found in contemporary sanctuaries. Commentators note that light is often associated with knowledge throughout the Torah. This light, placed in front of the Ark of the Pact … and now, located above the Ark that holds our Torah, symbolically indicates that the words of the Eternal … or our Torah… lights our way to the knowledge of God.
According to Rabbinic tradition, this light has several symbolic objectives.
Because, in the Tabernacle, only the Priests are allowed in the room containing the Ark, this light is a reminder to the priests of their responsibility to bring the light (knowledge) of God to the people.
Then, by commanding that this law is to be kept “throughout the ages,” the Ner Tamid, tells us that the contents of the Ark is still a light to the people…. leading us to the knowledge of Torah. It can also be seen as a sign to the congregation that they should also carry the light of Torah to the rest of the community.
The rest of the parsha is devoted to the clothing and investiture of the priests.
According to Oxford Biblical Studies Online, the role of the priests was as follows:
– Administered the temple and the sacrifices
– Served as a link between God and the people
– Pronounced blessings over the people
– Asked for forgiveness by God relating to himself, the Temple, and the Israelites
– Interpreted God’s will regarding the actions of the people
– Communicated the law to the people and adjudicated these laws
– Communicated all matters relating to ritual purification
– Collected tithes from the people (http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/resource/priests.xhtml)
Today the Temple, and the institution of the priesthood, no longer exists. The rabbis of today serve a very different function. The priest was the link between God and the people… He administrated the sacrifices … He was also responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Temple. Today’s rabbi is more of teacher. The contact between God and the people is more a responsibility of the people themselves.
So, at first, the rest of the parsha dealing the clothing and investiture of the priests, seem to have no meaning for us today. However, when you read about the specific vestments of the priests … and look at the Torah … many similarities can be noted.
The fabrics worn by the priests feature elegant blue, purple, crimson yarns… with gold accents. They wore a metal breastplate. Many stones are incorporated into the vestments to represent the tribes of Israel. The Urim and Thummin was carried near the priest’s breastplate. While we don’t know many details about these two items, it is assumed that they provided guidance to the priest by answering questions…. Today, the yad (the pointer used to follow to the Torah text) rests near the Torah’s breastplate (or where the breastplate would be if one were attached). Both the Urim/Thummin and the yad offer direction.
Both the priest and the Torah have elaborate headpieces or crowns. And lastly, both priest’s clothing and the Torah’s crown feature bells.
The priesthood is long gone. Many of their functions such as presenting the law, providing ritual and secular direction, and linking the Jewish people to God, are now functions of the Torah.
So, even though the text of this week’s parsha seems long obsolete, it can still have meaning for us today.