Instructions (Sometimes) Required – Parshat Tetzaveh 5784

A memory popped up in our photostream the other day of a time when I was working late and Duncan needed to entertain Shiri. Since the kids like baking together, he prepped a baking activity, but instead of following the recipe exactly, he simply put out all the ingredients (in reasonable quantities) like sugar, flour, eggs, oil, salt, chocolate chips, etc., and invited Shiri to create something. Even though Shiri decided the amount of each ingredient and what to do with it, they actually ended up making chocolate chip cookies that were fairly palatable.

While baking is a precise science, Duncan can usually use this method himself when it comes to non-baked dinner combinations. He can take a mix of leftovers and whatever else we might have lying around and craft something fairly yummy. By contrast, I’m not a whiz in the kitchen, but I am exceptional at following a recipe to a 90% success rate, meaning what I make is edible and generally meets expectations. I’m not great at experimenting too far outside of my kitchen comfort zone, so I leave that to Duncan, who can put out ingredients and riff on some basic knowledge.

There are times when each of these methods is not only appropriate but also necessary. On the one hand, putting out supplies with no directions can encourage creativity and imagination and can allow people to have a unique and different experience with each interaction. On the other hand, it often makes it impossible to recreate the product, which, outside of the culinary world, might be more problematic than we think.

Our Torah reading this week invites us into the possibility that both options (following directions or improvising) can be beneficial. Parshat Tetzaveh details the specific clothing items that a priest and those close to him are to wear. This is special attire that distinguishes them from others in their service to God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their sacred duties. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God also gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. After we receive these specifics, we learn about the details of what is on each garment.

In the Torah reading two weeks ago in chapter 24, the Israelites answer God with na’aseh v’nishma. “We will do it, and then we’ll understand it.” Commentators often refer to this text as the notion that to understand something, one must explore it, be active in it, and test it out. This week, however, as God is giving the instructions on how to install the priests, the opposite is described. First, God lists the materials that will be needed and then gives concrete, careful, exact directions on what to do and how to do it. To mess around with this order is to desecrate holy objects. When you read both portions, what’s clear is the Torah doesn’t just have one way of doing everything. In certain moments, it is imperative to explore, create, and experiment, and in others, there’s a precise formula to ensure safety, continuity, and balance.

– Rabbi Eve Posen

Source: Instructions (Sometimes) Required – Parshat Tetzaveh 5784