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Rabbi Clark on Parashat Tetzaveh

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(Piki Wiki Israel photo)

At first glance, this week’s parashah seems like more of the same from last week’s. In Terumah, God instructs Moses on how to build the Mishkan. The instructions are detailed and not especially compelling for those of us who are not building such a structure. Tetzaveh continues with the same level of detail and seeming irrelevance to our modern lives.

However, as Everett Fox, a professor at Clark University, points out, the first verse of the parashah signals an important shift in two ways. First, the word ve’attah, meaning “and you,” which begins the parashah, is out of the ordinary. In Hebrew, the pronominal subject is included in the verb, as it is in tetzavveh, “you shall instruct,” the second word of the parashah. The addition of ve’attah puts special emphasis on “you.” With this word, Fox claims, the focus moves from the building, to the people who will worship in it.

Second, the verse goes on to say that the Israelites must bring Moses clear oil made from beaten olives for lighting the lamps of the Mishkan. In an upcoming chapter, as Fox points out, this oil will also be used to anoint Aaron and his sons, emphasizing the shift from a structure, to the priests who will serve God in the Mishkan.

This small but vital shift in focus from a building to people is one we must take to heart. The leaders of our synagogues, schools, and community centres are stewards of buildings, and buildings are needed for the essential activities of Jewish life, like praying in a minyan, eating together and educating children. But the buildings are not the point. They are the vessel, not the substance, of Jewish communal life. We are what brings those building to life. We must continue to fill them on Shabbat and every day of the week with our commitment to joining together and serving God.

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