Don’t Judge a Priest by His Breastplate
D'var Torah Tetzaveh
February 27, 2021
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register here to join on Zoom.
Today’s Torah portion is an interesting one in that it is heavy on details. It methodically documents how the menorah of the Tabernacle is to be lit every day as well as how to construct the ephod and holy garments for Aaron the high priest and his sons. Sometimes it is easy to see a list of details and just go through the motion of completing it, but as Jews we have an obligation to try and seek to understand the deeper meaning.
This Dvar Torah was a group effort by members of Adath’s Antiracism Committee, and as such, found the descriptions of clothing to be prepared for Aaron as the Kohen Gadol, very compelling. Aaron’s holy garments are described in such detail that we could draw an actual picture of what he looked like as the high priest.
It is reasonable to ask why G-d demanded that his high priest to be so ornately and specifically dressed. We read about how Aaron’s garments were constructed to shoulder the burdens of his people through the two shoham stones, one on each shoulder. Clearly the details hold significance. They symbolize the actions he needs to take as a high priest. In addition, the breastplate must have been wondrous to see with all the gemstones laid in gold. We imagine that one could probably see and identify Aaron and subsequent high priests from a distance.
As a group, we thought about what assumptions other Jews made about Aaron when they saw him in his holy garments. Did they assume him to be important? Probably. Did they assume him to be special? Probably. Did they think he must be a person of good character? Probably.
We could go on and on about what qualities or characteristics we could assign to Aaron based on his garments. So, what are the implications for us as Jews.
We are going to imagine ourselves getting ready for synagogue. If you’d like to, close your eyes. Please imagine that it is a time when we are able to be together in the synagogue in person, something we are all looking forward to! What are you choosing to wear? Do you put on a kippah? Are your parents’ voices in your head telling you what not to wear? Are you choosing it based on comfort or appearance or because it belonged to a grandparent? How does it make you feel? If you closed your eyes, you can open them now.
We all choose what to wear for many reasons. It makes us feel a certain way, it makes people perceive us a certain way, it signals to others something important about who we are, whether we want it to or not. As Jewish people preparing for synagogue, we may make certain choices such as putting on a Kippah or magen david necklace to connect us to our Jewish identities and other Jews. We can wear these special things or we can choose not to, depending on context or circumstances. Are we in a place where we feel safe to be Jewish?
Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen talks about the concept of a “Hiddur Mitzvah, the enhancement of a mitzvah through the adornment of the act. This is why we say kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the mitzvah–but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.” For Jewish people the way we dress may enhance our relationship to G-d. And how lucky we are to not only have these ways to connect to our people, history and G-d and be able to fulfill this Hiddur Mitzvah, but to have safe spaces in which to do it.
For others, the way they dress that feels connected to their authentic selves and their histories may put them in danger. Furthermore, there are aspects of our identities that we cannot choose to take on and off like we do with our clothing. Our skin color, for example, is not something that we choose. And often the choices we make about what to wear in tandem with our race can lead people to judgements. Here in Minnesota and all around the United States, everyday fashion choices have to be carefully considered by people of color, Muslim people and transgender people just to name a few.
We are going to ask you to imagine together with us again. Once again, if you’d like to, please close your eyes. Imagine you are walking down the street and you see someone walking towards you. They are wearing baggy pants, an oversized sweatshirt and a hoodie zipped up and with their hood on. How are you feeling? Do you imagine yourself looking at this person or averting your eyes? What thoughts come to your mind? Are you imagining this person as White or Black? A man or woman? Would it matter if it was just one person or a group?
Open your eyes. Unlike Aaron, who was chosen to be the Kohein Gadol because of who he was and was dressed accordingly, today, many times we form judgements, not just about what a person wears but about who they are as a person or the circumstances of how they are living their life. It is a snap judgement that we are trained to make without even knowing we are making it.
Today, numerous examples exist that show how dress, religion, and/or actual physical characteristics that can’t be changed all impact what we think of a person. For those in the Black community, wearing hoodies, baggy pants, and vibrant colors impacts peoples’ perceptions of them. Hoodies and baggy pants generally make us think of athletes, thugs, bad kids, or kids looking for trouble, not smart, intelligent, kids looking for opportunities for advancement. Even if you saw a white kid wearing these same clothes, you may judge them first based on the clothing that they are wearing and the associations you make with it. Then when you realize that the color of their skin doesn’t fit your assumption, your thinking may be challenged.
This does not only happen at a personal level but also at a systemic level. Black women are one and a half times more likely than white women to be sent home from work because of their hairstyle. Whether on purpose or accidentally, Black women are discriminated against for having natural hair that does not align with white beauty standards. White hair and hairstyles are the default of what we assume smart and professional people should wear, but that requires those born with a different curl pattern to spend countless hours, hundreds of dollars, and sometimes the use of harsh chemicals to achieve a look that is perceived as professional. This is being fought with “The Crown Act'' which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” This law prohibits race-based hair discrimintation, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of a persons’ hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots. As of 2020 “The Crown Act'' has been signed into law in 7 states. It was considered in many others including Minnesota, but was not passed.
Hair in the workplace, or baggy pants on the street both illustrate some of the ways people’s identities, clothing and positions come into conflict. It might be easier if we could say we were judging people only based on their clothes, not their race. Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that. It is not just about what Aaron wears but about who he is that informs judgements of him. It is a person's race, gender, religion and more that inform how they are perceived by others. To think we judge people based only on one aspect of their identity, such as their clothing, is both inauthentic and dangerous. It creates a world where we go through making assumptions without being aware of what we are doing.
The Crown Act highlights a powerful way to mitigate judgement based on people's appearance and race. There are many examples of how these judgements are not so easily stopped and can be violent or even lethal towards others. In 2020 the Human Rights Campaign reported at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people were violently killed. These people were predominantly Black or Lantinx transgender women. We cannot say for certain that these people were killed because of how they dressed but trying to dress authentically as a transgender person certainly puts you at risk. The fact that these people were predominantly Black or Latinx further highlights that not only what we wear but our race causes people to judge us. This parsha highlights that even to G-d the way people dress is important. Aaron is commanded to wear garments that reflect his position. So how can we be okay with living in a world where people are judged and put in danger because they dress in a way that reflects their position and identity.
We need to challenge ourselves to consider the assumptions we make about how people look, that there may be a very good reason, a deep history and connection for all people to their choices of clothing. That a transgender person dressing in accordance to their gender identity or a Black man choosing to wear baggy clothes are also Hiddur Mitzvot. That if what Aaron wears highlights his holy position and we respect that then the choices of these people reflect their positions and are deserving of the same respect. We make these judgements automatically and unintentionally but this is a call to action. We need to start noticing our own tendencies to judge and react to people who aren’t like us. We can appreciate the times that we feel safe enough to express our Jewish identities and want to make space for others to express their identities as well. In this way we can lift up the holiness within each of us.
This is lifelong work, learning to notice the ways we are thinking and making the conscious choice to think differently. We hope to create space for each of us to begin or continue this work. We have two opportunities we would like to extend to you all. First, at the end of services today please join us for breakout rooms where we will be diving into each of our own relationships to assumptions we make about people based on their race and clothing. Dudley Deshommes-Kohls will lead us into that conversation with breakout groups led by other members of the Adath Antiracism Committee.The question we are going to start with today is, think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it? The goal is to take some time to think about how this comes up in our own lives and reflect on that together. If you find that conversation meaningful and would like to continue to dive deeper with us, we invite you all to join us on Sunday, March 14th at 7:30 pm for a facilitated conversation around antiracism in our own lives. Thank you and shabbat shalom.
Conversation over Kiddush:
Think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it?
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register to join on Zoom.
Congregants of Adath: Etta Barry
Welcome to Congregants of Adath!
In this series, we'll be highlighting congregants who are making a difference within the synagogue and/or within the greater community.
This week's Congregant of Adath is Etta Barry, chair of Adath's Inclusion Committee.
Having grown up in the Twin Cities and as a member of Adath, Etta (and her mother and siblings), have played a constant role as leaders in the community. Click play to hear her Inclusion story and about how we can help the Inclusion Committee achieve its goals.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), which is a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them. To learn more, visit Adath's Inclusion Committee webpage. The Inclusion Committee is always looking for new members!
Mishpatim and the moral void
D'var Torah Mishpatim
February 13th, 2021
I take up this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, The Book of the Covenant. Covenants create relationships, and obligations. In Mishpatim, God sets forth the rules or moral laws that will govern the relationship between God and the Israelites.
As distinguished from other societies at the time, the laws of Torah are based on divine principles embedded in the world. The Torah’s overall emphasis is on three interrelated principles; human equality, freedom, and dignity. The dignity of a human being is central. These laws or principles are intended to create not only a just society, but a Holy one.
Why is it important that these are God given laws? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in You Shall Be Holy; A Code of Jewish Ethics (vol.1) states: “Indeed, without God, by what authority can one argue certain activities should be permitted and others forbidden? Ivan Karamazov says ‘If there is no God, all is permitted’”. Without divine authority, we get moral relativism, leading often to moral confusion and ultimately, a moral void. It’s not the transgression, but the forgetting. That’s where I think we are today.
To be clear, I believe that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints. I speak here of a constructive morality of responsibility; a morality that respects the dignity of every human being—and the integrity of God’s natural world.
It’s a perilous time for our nation, as we rebuild our society from its multiple systemic failures revealed in the face of the pandemic. We are also on the verge of ruining the planet.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks last book, (may his memory be for a blessing) titled Morality; Restoring the Common Good in Historic Times, he describes how we live in today.
“A free society is a moral achievement. Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. This is why liberal democracy is at risk.
Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for all of us together.
If we focus on the “I” and lose the “We,” if we act on self interest without a commitment to the common good… we will lose so much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a future of competitive victimhood. In an age of unprecedented possibilities, people will feel vulnerable, humiliated, and alone.
The market will be merciless. Politics will be deceiving, divisive, confrontational, and extreme. People will feel anxious… aggressive, unstable, unrooted, and unloved. They will focus on promoting themselves instead of the one thing that will give them lasting happiness; making life better for others. Freedom itself will be at risk from the far right and the far left…”.
What are the moral principles of MIshpatim that can inspire the vision we so urgently need to rebuild our nation?
First, Mishpatim says that knowledge of the law is the obligation of an entire people, not a privileged class of specialists. We are all responsible. Responding to the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites proclaim, (Ex. 24:7) “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” Our moral codes become our framework for living.
Second, Mishpatim commands us to balance both righteous and compassion. (Lev. 19:33-34) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Third, justice and compassion relate to friend and enemy alike. (Ex 23: 1-4) “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him”.
Fourth, Etz Hayim notes that all the Torah's rules regarding slavery, debts, and indenture, inhibit economic enrichment at the expense of others. They are meant to protect the poor from exploitation. [ Ex. 22:24] "If you lend money to My people, to the poor...do not act toward them as a creditor. “ In other words, do not impose upon them a burden you would not take upon yourself were you in their shoes.
Fifth, and of central importance today, the laws of Mishpatim point to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people, and of humanity with the natural world.
To illustrate interconnection and interdependence, I will quote from the renowned scholar of twentieth century eastern European history, Timothy Snyder, in his latest book Our Malady; Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.
In December 2019, hospitalized with sepsis, he was paralyzed and gravely ill. He kept a journal of the powerful emotions that rescued him from near death. In his prologue, titled “Solitude and Solidarity” he writes; “It was an intense rage and a gentle empathy that sustained me…I felt nothing cleaner and more intense than my rage against deathly illness…. The rage was beautifully pure, undefiled by an object…. I raged therefore I was.
My first extended thought after surgery was about uniqueness. No one had ever moved through life as I had, making just the same choices….I wanted my rage to lead out of the bed and into another year…. My rage was my life….
Yet slowly and softly a second mood impinged, one that sustained me in a different way; a feeling that life was only truly life insofar as it was not only about me….I recited to myself the way my children’s lives were bound to my own. What mattered was not that I was unique but that I was theirs; their father. Every bit of their existence involved the expectation of my presence. They had never not touched me….I imagined what would change without me…I watched their future unfold without me in my mind’s eye—and then I reeled it back.
This…recognition, that my life was not my own, this gentle empathy escorted me away from death. The rage helped me see myself. The empathy placed me among others…it was not important that I was unique and special. It was important that I was inside other people, in their memories and expectations, a support in the shape of their lives, a buoy during difficult passages.
The empathy… worked together with the rage. Each mood revealed a truth, an element of me. Neither was enough, I needed both…the fire and the water, the solitude and the solidarity… to get well, to be free. ”
Plato said, “The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos, and live in another’s world.”
Finally, the study of Torah and the keeping of Shabbat anchors us in all of this: With these practices, performed within community to create community across our differences, we safeguard it, our collective remembering, the integrity of our moral laws, and our faith traditions.
To summarize, at this perilous fork in the road of our nation’s history, we need to bring the “we” back into our consciousness. We are all responsible, and it moves us away from our dualistic mindset.
Our problem is discursive. If we do not talk differently, we won’t think differently. We need a language, a moral narrative, to articulate our moral instincts. We need to engage in ethically informed conversations, across our differences.
Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it bring about a better society and a better world? These are the general questions we must ask with a view to the welfare of the whole.
In addition, in the name of our interconnectedness and interdependence, we need to rethink the role of the “public”. What are the public policies that would bring about a just, compassionate, and more peaceful society, public policies that respect the dignity of all people? What are we willing to commit to make that happen?
I believe our young people have the vision we need. I hear it in The Students’ Prayer.
The Students’ Prayer:
God, help our country to seek equality amongst people, that all minorities are treated fairly, and create peace between political standpoints.
May this country be blessed with peace, justice, and acceptance. May our leaders be guided by the strength of truth and compassion. Let our leaders be wise and helpful in their decisions for everyone to be treated equally, and with respect.
In times of uncertainty, allow us to continue leading a life of gratitude and kindness. Allow us to continue creating special memories with the people we love. Allow us to let times of uncertainty not make us weaker, but even stronger than we were before.
There are lots of reasons to be scared, and many reasons to be frustrated. But the unseeable future will be better. We need to be optimistic. We decide when change is needed, and we take the steps to make that happen.
May we feel connected and stable, feel steady emotionally and mentally, feel healthy and in the right mindset, feel ready to overcome the obstacles in our path, feel safe making our decisions, feel prepared and educated for the unknown, and feel accepted for our actions and words.
And let us say: Amen.
– Adath Confirmation Class of 2021/5781, January 19, 2021 (Inauguration Eve)
Conversation over Kiddush:
Here is a quote from Dr. Yehuda Kurzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It’s his definition of pluralism from a lecture, “Pluralism in the Face of Injustice”.
"True pluralism...is rooted in the belief that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints, and it translates into the commitment to build societies of mutual respect. Pluralism is a belief system in which we make room for the opinions and whole selves of others, and a tool to build a society that is improved by the presence of difference."
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share