This week’s parashah fits well its pre-Purim context. Indeed, more than one third of the parashah is dedicated to the costume of the High Priest. As many of us are going to dress up for Purim, this subject seemed perfect to me for a sermon.
However, Purim is not only about dressing up. In the same way, the costume of the High Priest was not only made of material garments, but we can also find a spiritual meaning in its components – and some of these can highlight a few prominent Jewish duties.
A first duty is that of memory. The High Priest carried as a memorial the names of the twelve tribes on the shoulder pieces of the ephod and on his breastplate. The stones which carried the names were put in settings of gold, which were protecting and embellishing those names. It may mean that the memory of the preceding generations must remain very precious to us.
Indeed, a good understanding of the past can help us to build a better future. Because we have suffered from oppression in the past, we should now help others who undergo similar hardships. When the memory of past generations encourages us to act in a better way, it seems to me that these people are still alive through our deeds.
However, this positive remembrance contrasts with another kind of memory, which has to be first recalled and then erased. In this Shabbat Zakhor, we are told to remember all the bad that Amalek did to us in our going out of Egypt. However, when God will let us settle in the secure place that was promised to our ancestors, we are commanded to erase the tribe of Amalek.
In the same way, if we have suffered from dreadful situations when people harm each other, it seems important, at some point, to face the memory of what happened. Otherwise, we would not be able to process the events and to overcome our trauma. Even if we think that the trauma is not here anymore, it might come back when we do not wait for it, and strike us in an unpredictable way.
But tackling with the recollection of a painful event is always tough. It may make us feel deep sorrow and hatred towards the people who injured us. It seems to me that this feeling is part of our processing of the event, and that we should accept to experience it at some stage, provided that it remains controlled and do not lead us to violence. When we boo Haman at Purim and lose sight of boundaries to the point of no more distinguishing between Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman, the liturgical cycle seems to reproduce the emotions of persons who are still processing trauma and need to express the painful feelings caused by it.
But when the trauma is overcome, we have to erase the hatred and resentment; otherwise it would embitter our life and our relationships with other people. Hatred might be a natural and even necessary feeling at some stage, but it has to be finally defeated. Then, when we are commanded to erase the memory of Amalek, it seems to me that it is especially our hatred towards oppressors of the past that we have to subdue.
A second duty materialized in the High Priest’s garment is transmission. Different parts of the costume are linked together by different connectors. Some are called sharsherot. According to a commentary of Rashi, it evokes the Hebrew word for root, shoresh, and it has the same meaning as shalshelet which can designate either a chain or a dynasty. Thus, the word sharsherot can allude to the roots of a family and to the succession of its generations.
Another type of link mentioned in our parashah is the thread of blue, which is similar to the thread of blue which is in the tzitzit, the fringes of the shawl of prayer. The word tzitzit itself can make us think of the Hebrew word tzetza, which means “descendant”. This word is found in the blessing before the study of Torah, and alludes to the command of transmitting the Torah to future generations. In the same way, the tzitzit is one of the signs linked to the remembrance of the going out of Egypt. Then, the thread of blue in the High Priest’s garment may symbolise the perpetuation of memory through transmission from generation to generation.
These chains are prominent to keep the different pieces of the ephod linked to one another. Each generation has to transmit its memory to the following, in order to keep the links between the different members of our people. Without the transmission of our history and values, our social body would disintegrate itself.
A third duty alluded to in the description of the High Priest’s costume is to remain alive. Rashi explains that if one element of a priest’s costume was missing when he came before God, then the priest would die.
In the same way, if our social body disintegrates itself, because we have failed to transmit our memory to the next generations, then we would die as a people. If we forget who we are, we would not be spiritually completely alive.
Sometimes, we are wearing a garment nearly as complex as that of the High Priest without knowing its meaning. However, even if this meaning has been lost, it may be recovered and then we would find again our integrity.
For example, our ancestors have sometimes been forced to “dress up” in order to survive in an hostile environment. However, their disguises were full of hidden meanings, those of Jewish values. With the passing of generations, the meanings may have been forgotten from the family’s consciousness, but the garment was still transmitted. Thanks to that, some descendants of hidden Jews could find back a link with Judaism.
Then, when we dress up for Purim, we will remain conscious that we are actually doing much more than dressing up.
Student rabbi Iris Ferreira