A consequence of Election Day is that leadership on many levels has seemed to be in flux this week. The news has bombarded us with an endless stream of drama and intrigue – with plenty of plot twists and turns – ultimately leading to speculation about the untold possibilities of the future. On the surface, T’tzaveh, this week’s parashah, does not appear to provide much timeless wisdom for steadying us during a period of such uncertainty. Many people (even Beit T’Shuvah rabbis!) have lamented this section of the Torah, which explains in fine detail the design instructions for the sacred tabernacle as well as the vestments worn by its officials and the ritual activities undertaken in this space.
Nonetheless, a deeper examination provides me with the framework for an inspiring model of spiritual leadership, as well as guidance orienting me towards realistic expectations of my own leadership and the leadership of others.
What’s introduced throughout this section of the Torah is a highly centralized structure of leadership, with many concentric layers spreading across the entire community. At the center of this system is the High Priest, who acts as an intermediary between G!D and the people. While the initial focus is primarily on the High Priest, our tradition affirms all of us as a nation of priests, assigning the roles and responsibilities each of us has in the service of an upstanding life. Thus, the High Priest serves as a reflection and embodiment of the people he serves.
Amidst the extensive description of the clothes the High Priest is to wear while officiating the prescribed sacred rituals, the Torah provides very specific details about a headpiece to be worn across the priest’s forehead and over his turban.
You should make a frontlet of pure gold and engrave on it the seal of inscription: “Holy to G!D” Suspend it on a cord of blue, so that it may remain on the headdress; it shall remain on the front of the headdress. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may take away any sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate, from any of their sacred donations; it shall be on his forehead at all times, to win acceptance for them before G!D (Exodus 28:36-38)
As can be seen, this headpiece is not just a decorative accessory, but seems to actually serve an essential function in the process of redemption of sins/mistakes. Practically speaking, it’s the High Priest who is responsible for any infractions of the instructions related to the sacred offerings provided by the community. Thus, the headpiece has a role in helping the High Priest stay focused on holding others accountable to these rules, as well as securing atonement from G!D when mistakes are made.
As one of my wise colleagues pointed out, implicit in the wording of the headpiece’s inscription, (“Holy to G!D”) is an understanding that EVERYTHING the people brought to G!D contained a dimension of holiness – even their sins/mistakes/miss the marks.
That can also be said for us, and this powerful insight reminds me that I can humbly approach G!D – in whatever state or condition I may find myself – and in doing so, I can find Divine acceptance. This acceptance doesn’t mean agreement to or the co-signing of my self-deceptions and improper behavior, but it does imply a compassionate (G!Dly) understanding that I’m both a Holy Soul and an imperfect human.
The Talmud states: “The Gold Plate (headpiece) atones for the sin of insolence” (Erkhin 16 BT). Our tradition understands that, from time to time, all of us act out and inevitably disregard respect for others and for ourselves. However, built into this understanding is also the pathway forward, one in which the “gates of t’shuvah are always open.” This is a privilege which allows us to approach G!D with humility, knowing that even our mistakes contain the potential for holiness. While we may no longer wear a headpiece of solid gold, we can still view our indiscretions with its spirit – as opportunities for growth and (re)connection.
Taken from this perspective, leadership means that I, as a leader, have a responsibility to hold myself and others accountable to standards of decency and respect. Additionally, as an individual, I have the responsibility to accept my own and others’ imperfections, continually seeking atonement by engaging in the process of t’shuvah.
Chaplain Adam Siegel