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Parshat Tetsaveh – Imperfection and Pure Gold


Exodus 27:20-30:10

And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave upon it, like the engravings of a signet: SANCTIFIED TO THE L-RD (Exodus 28:36)

Of all of the priestly garments, the tzitz, or headplate, is unique, not only by virtue of its material and engraving, but also because of the function it performed.  Generally, the garments, whether those belonging to the High Priest or the regular priests, are designated לכבוד ולתפארת, lechavod u’letifaret (“for honor and splendor”), meaning that their function is to beautify the appearance of the kohanim themselves.  The tzitz has a slightly different purpose, as the following verse states: 

“And it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear the iniquity committed in the holy things, which the children of Israel shall hallow, even in all their holy gifts; and it shall be always upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the L-RD”  (Exodus 28:38)

The tzitz facilitates the acceptance by G-d of “holy gifts”.  Offerings made in the Temple have to confirm to an elaborate set of requirements in order for them to be acceptable as such. If these offerings are blemished or deficient in certain ways, the presence of the tzitz “fills in” the deficiency, making what would have been a mediocre or unfit offering into a perfect one. 

How can this be explained?  Think of a store credit; if you have some, you can purchase an item whose expense exceeds the amount you have to spend, by combining your money with the store credit.  The tzitz is like a credit or gift card whose value never runs out.  Being human and being imperfect, this is a very beneficial function, since it is likely that whatever we give to G-d will come up short of perfection.  Included in the mitzvah of the tzitz is the criterion that it be made of pure gold, since being sanctified to G-d, it is not befitting that it be made of impure gold, or even an admixture of elements, such as the linen, techeles, silk and crimson wool of other priestly garments (Abarbanel).  The perfect tzitz makes up for our imperfections.

In the story of the Sophisticate and the Simpleton, Rebbe Nachman z”l describes how the Simpleton, a shoemaker, had never learned his trade to perfection, and therefore made shoes that were triangular, as opposed to rectangular, in shape–yet, despite his lack of completeness, he was joyous.  The notes on the story indicate that the concept of a shoe corresponds to prayer, as the angel responsible for its transport to Heaven is called “Sandalphon” (note the word, “sandal” in this name).  The prayer of the Simpleton was three- rather than four-sided; it was not perfect.  But the Simpleton did what he could, given his resources, and did not concern himself with results; he rejoiced in any case.  But, if our prayer is imperfect, if our offerings are imperfect, why are they accepted?

Note that the tzitz is placed upon the forehead of the High Priest.  The forehead is called מצח, metzach, in Hebrew.  It is the location of the power of sight, and therefore the tzitz shares a common linguistic root as other words that are related to vision, such as ציצית, tzitzit, the fringes made on four-cornered garments worn by Jewish men, and מציץ, metzitz, “peering”, as in “He peers through the lattice” (Song of Songs 2:9).  The purpose of the tzitzit, for example, is to remind its wearer of the commandments when they look at them, as the verse states, “and you shall see them and you shall remember” (Numbers 15:39).  

Interestingly, the word for “brazenness” in Hebrew is עזות מצח azut metzach, literally “a boldness of forehead”, perhaps an allusion to the quality of being headstrong.  This is close to the idea of עזות פנים azut panim, or chutzpah, which is considered in our Torah to be a poisonous personality trait.  “The brazen shall go to Gehinnom, and the shamefaced shall go to Heaven” (Avos 5:20).  In an earlier mishna, it is stated, “the bashful (shamefaced) cannot learn [Torah]” (2:6).  This appears to be a contradiction–isn’t it better to be shamefaced?  We resolve this by positing that boldness has a place as well, and it is in the quest for holiness, for understanding G-d’s Words, but it has no place in interpersonal communication.

The tzitz is placed in the precise location that signifies brazenness.  Yet potential chutzpah is subdued symbolically by the fact that the headplate it has the words “sanctified to G-d” in relief placed upon it.  The tzitz indicates modesty and humility, precisely the qualities that a person must have when standing before G-d.  This is why the imperfect offering is accepted.


By Rabbi Tani Burton

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