In our parasha, Tetzevah, we continue to deal with preparation and construction of the ‘Mishkan’, the Tabernacle, or the temporary temple which served the people of Israel while traveling through the desert.
The Torah describes, in extensive detail, the clothes of the priests, in which they are supposed to serve in the tabernacle. One of the unique garments for the High Priest is the ‘Hoshen’ – which the priest wears on his chest. Twelve precious stones were set in this garment, on which the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were engraved:
“And the stones shall be after the names of the sons of Israel, twelve stones for the twelve tribes.”
One would think that the stones representing the twelve tribes in the nation should have been identical to each other, to express our pursuit of one common goal! But twelve different stones were deliberately chosen to serve as symbols for the tribes who differ from each other, in their nature and occupations.
We already learned from the different blessings which Jacob, our father, gave to each of his sons, and by extension to each tribe, reflected their qualities.
The high priest had to carry the precious stones on his heart and faithfully represent the entire nation, in its various shades and subgroups.
But these precious stones are not the only stones fixed on the clothes of the high priest, nor are they the only stones on which the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are engraved! The high priest also carried two additional stones, one on each shoulder, each of which are engraved with the names of six tribes:
“And you took the two Shoham stones and carved on them the names of the Israelites: six of their names on one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone… and you put the two stones on the shoulders of the vest, memorial stones for the Israelites. And Aaron carried their names before God on his two shoulders as a memorial.”
Why is it that the stones on the shoulders are identical, engraved with all the tribes’ names together, while the stones on the heart are engraved with each tribe by itself on a separate and unique stone?
The stones on the high priest’s shoulders expressed unity of the people, when serving before God. When the priest represented the people before God, he presented the unity in their defined goal and in their relationship with God.
However, the twelve stones on the priest’s heart carry a more complex character.
“And Aaron always carried the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before God.”
The main theme represented by these stones is the “Judgment of the Am Israel”. In order for the high priest to be able to represent the temple in front of the people, he cannot treat the people as one unit. He must recognize the fact that the people are made up of a wide spectrum. The various stones reminded him, at all times, that the people are made up of different tribes, groups and subgroups, each with their unique characteristics and diverse ways of expressing the good and the common trend.
The case teaches us that a proper leadership must recognize the differences between the various groups in the nation. But different groups may be isolated from each other. Alienation and foreignness, and even hatred and incitement, can take over public discourse and threaten our existence as a Jewish nation. (Just check the history…)
In these difficult days when division and incitement which are bubbling in the Israeli public on the one hand, and the threats from our enemies on the other, it becomes clearer every day that we must stand up for our nation as one group, for the sake of the preservation of Jewish identity and the passing of our traditions to future generations.
Sephardic Temple is known as a house of worship for Jews from different backgrounds and different levels of religiosity. But we are standing in front of God shoulder to shoulder, unified with one common goal: to transmit our values to our next generation, and to guarantee our continuity, “Midor Le’Dor”, from generation to generation.
Rabbi Refael Cohen