Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shrinking the Self (Tetzaveh)

So while this project started -- and will continue to be -- alternative commentary for and from 20-somethings, we're not going to turn down a more ... mature voice when they have a relevant contribution. One such voice is that a mentor of mine, Rabbi V, who presided over my temple during this Brooklyn Boy's formative high school years, and a wee bit before that.

She's socially active, interesting and -- most importantly -- encouraging. She's the one who got me to understand that thinking is everything, and while the text certainly is holy, it should serve as the foundation for that greatest of Jewish traditions: Debate. Wrestle with the important issues until they make sense to you. Not agreeing is okay, but have a basis for your position. That said, here's her take on Parsha

Imagine how incredible Aaron, the High Priest, looked decked out in jewels of every color, golden armor, jingly bells on his hem and a zany headdress -- what a contrast to the burnt umber, barren landscape of the Sinai desert! Now imagine how sweltering he would have been in that outfit. Although we know the names of these cohanim -- Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar, the institution of the priesthood pretty much obliterates their personalities. The office consumes the individual. Their clothing almost literally swallows them.

This could be a drag for the cohanim as individuals: In Parashat Shemini in Leviticus 10, Nadav and Avihu attempt to defy the rules and just be themselves. As a result, God hurls a giant fireball at them and they die instantly. But it was of great benefit to the Jews. The loss of human personality through these garments allowed the priests to be seen as celebrities. However, they were not celebrities for themselves or by their own merit -- they were celebrities because they represented all the people.

The clothing was a key to how the priests were celebrities for the people. Obviously, the bright colors were conspicuous, so when the cohanim stood before the masses, even from far away there would be no mistaking the guy in the golden breastplate. The clothing was highly symbolic. On each shoulder, Aaron wore a lapis lazuli stone on which the names of each of the twelve tribes were engraved. So all the regular people felt that they were integral to the rituals Aaron performed. Aaron, the High Priest, metaphorically carried the people on his shoulders. Having the name of their tribe on his garments was like having your sporting team or alma mater on the hat or jersey of the President. You feel validated. Less like a chump for belonging to the smallest tribe or rooting for the Cubs.

The gemstones on the breastplate had a similar function. Twelve dazzling jewels, each representing a tribe, shone from the silver breastplate during the rituals. Every tribe, and thus every member of the twelve tribes was included. When you looked at the Cohen Gadol, you knew he alone was the High Priest, but you got the sense that he was your man and that you were important in everything he did.

That the individual men who were cohanim had to check their personal identity at the door when they got into their garments meant the priests had to do some serious tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a Hebrew term meaning shrinking oneself to allow others to grow in importance. Kabbalistic theology of the creation of the universe uses the term tzimtzum to describe how God once filled the universe, but shrank to a tiny point to allow space for the stuff of the universe to fit. Then God radiated the divine self into matter.

The cohanim also had to shrink themselves to some degree – to lose their personalities in order to leave space for all the people to gain a sense of participation and ownership of the rituals. The clothes helped the cohanim cloak their own authority, and as a result they became paradoxically more powerful because the masses bought into the new rituals instead of rejecting them and the priests as elitists know-it-alls. In a 1944 utopian piece called “After The War” novelist and essayist Henry Miller wrote that in a new era humans will realize that they can no longer hoard power: “His aim will not be to possess power, but to radiate it.” This may have been God’s goal for the priests in designing these outfits -- to radiate power outward and let all the people own some piece of power.

Last week, millions of voters went to the polls in the primary elections and caucuses to use their power of citizenship. The phenomenon of Barack Obama has been exciting to see, and interesting in light of the way that the cohanim radiated power. Obama has not tried to build a cult of personality, though he is personally popular. Instead his mode is a little bit of tzimtzum. He talks about the power of the people to make change, not just his own abilities. After Super Duper Tuesday, he spoke, saying, "We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek… We are the hope." Obama’s strength in connecting to and energizing an electorate comes not from possessing power, but in radiating it.

In the January 28, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, George Packer wrote about the differences between the celebrity of Hillary Clinton and of Barack Obama. The Obama celebrity is less personal, and more about his capacity to inspire others -- to make people believe they have power to make change. In the article, former Secretary of Labor (under Bill Clinton), Robert Reich defines the power of political inspiration as "the legitimizing of social movements and social change, the empowering of all sorts of people and groups to act as remarkable change agents."

One of the reasons that voters who really want change in this country (from cynicism to optimism at the very least) gravitate to Obama is because his candidacy suggests that we all hold a stake in change and all have the power to make change. Obama is not just running on a ticket of policy change, but on change in the process. He is running on the belief that regular Americans should not feel voiceless and excluded from democracy – elbowed out by powerful corporations or by Washington insiders.

One of the reasons the priesthood in the desert was embraced by the Israelites is that the ordinary people felt included in this radical new way of worshiping One God. The clothing of the priests assured them that the men in power were getting very little for themselves (mostly a lot of sweat, ashes and ram’s blood) and that the people as a whole were getting a lot. Tzimtzum may just be the only way to make lasting change. A person in power can fall, but a movement with a wide base can outlast the individual – even if the individual enjoys celebrity status.

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