Tetzaveh: Portable Holiness, Global Jewishness by Elyssa Hurwitz

“Holiness is inside of us, meaning we can embrace shmita, both inside and outside of the Land of Israel, inside and outside of the traditional ways of observing it.”

As we continue forward through both the Book of Exodus and the 5782 Shmita year, I am struck by the intensity of the details found within larger Jewish understandings of time, space, and place. Parashat Tetzaveh starts with a heads-up that rituals are about to be presented that must be done forever and ever. The parashah then expounds upon the details of what the priests wore in the Mishkan, and the many sacrifices. How Aaron was to give Olah (burnt, whole) offerings, specifics of Tenufah (waving) offerings, particulars of Ḥataat (sin) offerings, and a whole description of how Aaron and the other priests were going to purify everything and everyone for seven days. The parasha concludes with a reminder that these rituals are holy to God and they must be continued l’dorotaechem (לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם), for their future generations.

This set of instructions feels as technical as those of the shmitah year, Shabbat, and other cyclical practices that we have.The ta’aseh (do’s) and lo ta’aseh (don’t’s) are unpacked, they are multi-sensory experiences, and they are to be done forever. But that’s where things get a little tricky, because the place that these offerings were done was not where Jews continued to live.

Fast forward from Biblical times to the destruction of both Batei haMikdash (Holy Temples). When this place of sacrifice, connection to God, communal gathering, and simply Jewish meaning-making was destroyed and not rebuilt again, the Jewish people faced the challenge of translating ancient rituals into something they could do in modernity without a central place of Jewish holiness. How would they move forward with these commandments from Parashat Tetzaveh (literally “you will command”), when they couldn’t do them in the prescribed place?

Welcome to the Rabbinic Era! A time where teachers became leaders, Jewish law and history were written down and compiled, and the Jewish people became more spread out. Our ancestors taught us with their actions that we can practice Judaism even when it’s not possible exactly how we’re told to do it in the Torah. Even one of the concluding verses of this week’s parashah tell us the same (Exodus 29:45):

וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים׃
I will dwell among the Children of Israel, and I will be God to them

God will dwell betoch (בְּתוֹךְ) – in the midst of, in the middle of, in, among, between, through – the Israelites. It’s not necessarily that God’s presence only existed in the Mishkan and the Temples, but that God’s presence, essence, and place of immersion is within each and every Jew. So when we think back to ways in which the Torah and other Jewish texts tell us where and how to practice Judaism, we can also be reminded that holiness is inside of us, spills out through our actions, and is part of how we exist in this world. The ways we embrace shmitah – inside and outside of the Land of Israel, inside and outside of the traditional ways of observing it – can be shifted just as we moved from sacrificial offerings to prayer.

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Elyssa Hurwitz is an experiential Jewish educator, who is currently an iFellow and finishing up her Master’s Degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America after spending the last two years at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in their Experiential Educators Program. When Hurwitz isn’t teaching 5th graders Judaic studies, high schoolers Hebrew, consulting with organizations on how they can implement modern shmitah practices, or creating curriculum for various Jewish organizations, she likes to cook yummy foods and read Jewish texts (like the parashah of the week). Check out her Jewish Instagram with experiential holiday and parashah content, and her blog with musings throughout this 929 cycle, parashah of the week, and Jewish holidays!