“You Matter.” This phrase is familiar to all of us here at Beit T’Shuvah. It is posted on the walls and serves as a beacon of hope and light. It is how we read the texts of our tradition and integrate Torah into our lives. “You Matter” and all that comes with this shift in thinking is how we navigate moments that are dark and harsh. When I first encountered this message as a visiting Rabbinical student in the Elaine Breslow Institute immersion program in 2015, I was – at best – skeptical. I thought to myself: although this is a beautiful message, it is not the message of my Jewish experience. There are many messages of truth and beauty that our tradition offers, all of which are important. The concept that each of us matters because we are created in the image of God seemed like it ought to be true, and in an ideal world would be true, but in fact, is not always manifested. Our society can feel disparaging, often reminding us along the way that even if we thought that we mattered, we don’t matter enough. This week’s parashah, Tezaveh, is an example of why so many of us may feel detached from this core message.
We read the detailed instructions about the priesthood garments that Aaron, his sons, and the priests are to wear. There are even descriptions of the specific jewels, hats, and robes – oh my!! For those who are into priestly fashion design, this weekly portion is the one for you! All joking aside, this part of the Torah is where the distance between us as individuals and God begins, and if you are like me, perhaps the pain and loneliness of that distance starts to set in. While the many stories that came before this contain characters and moments filled with manipulation, suffering, and flaws, there is nearly always a lesson and a sense of humanity that is threaded throughout. God is everywhere equally, woven into the story of intimacy. In this week, however, the hierarchy is solidified – the necessity of a priesthood tells us that there is indeed a distance between God and us, and the way for us to connect is through this created system.
How can we hold on to our mantra here of “You Matter” with such a structure in place? Is our text saying that only some of us matter? That, perhaps, accessing God is only for those of us who have the right lineage and costume! The cynic in me continues to read and relishes in the negative self-talk that immediately comes to the surface: “See, you don’t matter!” I continue to read with anger and pain until I notice a line (Exodus 29:45), one that is familiar:
“And I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel”
וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
This is it: because we matter to God, God will dwell with us – all of us. God is with us, and we are individually and collectively connected. This week the lesson is not really about who matters and who does not. This parashah is teaching us that this priesthood, these costumes, these rituals, they are merely one pathway towards connecting to and with God. And it was quite powerful, spanning centuries until, of necessity, our sages created a revised pathway – the Judaism that we know and love today.
Many of our generation are desperately seeking a pathway that can give us the connection we need in order to know and feel that we matter. The gift of living now is that we have this fantastic Jewish tradition of learning, thinking, questioning, discussing, engaging and even praying with one another and with God. We have permission to immerse ourselves into an ancient text with symbols, rituals that help ignite the sacred into our lives. We get to stare at the Ner Tamid, the light above the ark in our synagogue that is reminiscent of the Temple and priesthood, and feel the light that we need in our lives.
We have the opportunity to do all of this, and still know that we as individuals can lean into our faith in our way; a way that feels true to each of us. This is the whole point of existing today, in this moment: “You matter,” which means that each of us is enough and will be seeking our pathway to the connection we crave.
We are the luckiest to be alive today: to have the gift of a beautiful and compelling tradition that is beckoning us to lean into who we are at our essence. We get to connect to the divine spark within us while still being wrapped in a tapestry of a tradition that can keep us safe, warm, and can indeed hold us.