Parshat Tetzaveh: "Is Holiness Just Skin Deep? The Spiritual Case For Materialism"

Here is the link to the Parsha class where the artist and rabbi are in conversation:

For more information about Artists "Well of Wills: Nessa Norich, Meirav Ong, Hannah Roodman":

For more information about Rabbi David Evan Markus, esq.:

Piece Description, Well of Wills, “Ruach Chochma I and II”:

Ruach Chochma Part I: is inspired by a Shiviti incorporating the idea of mirror and reflection as we discussed and incorporates the text about Ruach Chochmah as well as the priestly blessing – both in the feminine conjugation (from Beit Toratah). We are really interested in the intimacy between priest and prophet (Moses/Aaron) and priest and the people. These intimacies are the foundation of priestly power. They’re a feedback loop. They can’t exist without each other.

Ruach Chochma Part II: What makes a spirit wise? What does it mean for the priest to carry the weight of social memory on her shoulders and on her heart? This work explores the process of preparing the priestly body for service through a non-male and embodied perspective, as distinct from a traditional reading of kohen as male, intellectualized, and separate from society. The beauty of this text is that it centers the body as a powerful site for spiritual care and healing of others.

Discussion Questions:
1. Ruach Chochma Part I pays close attention to the hands of the priestess. The image reflects on itself in both its vertical and horizontal axes. How do these elements describe the role of the priestess? What relationships are being metaphorically reflected in this piece? Does this describe a tension between the material-centric description of the priest as described in the parsha?

2. Ruach Chochma Part I contains 24 panels, while Ruach Chochma Part II is designed as a Triptych. What significance can be placed on these design choices and how do the messages of both parts differ from one another?

3. The Headdress, Choshen and Ephod, three priestly garments, are depicted in Ruach Chochma Part II. What do you notice about how each is presented? What biblical elements remain intact, and what aspects are reimagined? What is the underlying message behind these choices?

4. In modern Jewish life, the priestly class has changed from their biblical roles. However, the Torah preserves the memory of this position. What residue remains from this tradition? What can be learnt from the way in which they prepared themselves for their service? And what can be reconstructed when using our faculties of Ruach Chochma?

“See Different, Be Different” by Rabbi David Evan Markus

Travel in your mind to the top of our atmosphere, where the Earth’s envelope of life-giving oxygen and nitrogen blends into the cold vacuum of space. Looking down from that heady height, as astronauts first did in 1961, the Earth seems borderless and pastoral, gently still except for flashes of lightning and the polar aurora dancing across the sky below.

This uplifted perspective on our planet – whole, borderless, peaceful and alive – launched the environmental movement and a spiritual shift that continues to pulse through society. all Seeing all humanity, all history and all human endeavor fit onto a tiny blue speck in the vast darkness of space, cannot help but shift our sense of ourselves, each other, and our planet. Sometimes seeing is believing.

That’s why this journey of consciousness – this shift in how we see ourselves, each other and all humanity – is such an important purpose of spiritual life. Perspective shift is about seeing differently, not only seeing different things but also bringing different eyes to what we see. To live spiritually is to heed the ancient call to keep seeing different.

Long before astronauts and photography, this week’s Torah portion (Tetzaveh) called us to see different. In ancient days, the Israelite priesthood donned a ceremonial headdress befitting the role. Of that headdress, Torah records: “You will make [for it] a plate of pure gold and engrave on it [the words]: ‘Holy to God’” (Ex. 28:36).

Whom did these words describe? To ask that question is also to ask who the intended audience was for those words, and with what eyes the intended audience would see them.

The answer of the Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, 12th century France) was that the headband reminded God that our ancestors were “Holy to God,” so that God would accept the priest’s offerings in their merit. A second answer emerged from Naftali Tzvi Yehudah (1817-1893, Poland), who taught that the headband was to remind the priest that he himself was “Holy to God,” evoking an awed quality of mind and heart so he could serve the people.

But what about the people? Surely the people also saw the priestly headband and saw the priest as “Holy to God.” But this notion rubs me the wrong way. Too often in spiritual life, we default to the notion that clergy and teachers somehow are holier and higher. A recurrent bit of cynical dark humor is that synagogues pay rabbis to be Jewish for them, to embody a spirituality either inconvenient or inaccessible for most others.

But spirituality is to be lived, not outsourced. A spirituality far above people can entertain people, and maybe inspire people, but not transform people.

In that spirit, might the ancient priestly headband’s real purpose be to remind the people not that the priest alone was “Holy to God,” but that they – the people themselves – were to be “Holy to God”? As Moses later told them, “You are a people holy to God” (Deut. 7:6) – the same words as the priestly headband. Maybe the priest’s headband was like a billboard or a mirror – so the people would be reminded of who they – today, all of us – are called to be.

This perspective shift is critical. The priestly headband reminds that sometimes we can’t see who we’re called to be except in the mirrored projection of a higher vision that we need others to help us see. It reminds that sometimes we forget even that our vision is limited – we can’t see that we can’t see – so we need help recalibrating our spiritual vision.

The astronaut’s vantage on the Earth as a “big blue marble” evokes exactly this vision of the priestly headband. When we lift our sights above particulars of routine and behold the vista of the whole, we can fulfill the prophetic vision of an Earth renewed, a people “Holy to God” worthy of those words emblazoned on our Torah.

You, us, all of us together – we are what Jewish tradition calls “Holy to God.” Let that vision appear before our eyes when we see each other. See that headband on others as a billboard and a mirror, reminding us who we are called to be.