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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Tezaveh 5764

This week’s parsha reviews intricate details about the bigdei kehuna, the clothing the Kohanim wore while officiating in the Holy Temple. Our Rabbis have drawn many lessons from the description of these garments that are worthy of deeper study. However, to be honest, the relevance of these clothing to our lives as American Jews doesn’t exactly leap off the page.

The bigdei kehuna do have an interesting connection to Purim. During the huge Persian feast described in the beginning of the Book of Esther, the wicked King Achashverosh dressed himself in the bigdei kehuna. In full view of the invited Jews, he served in vessels that had also been used in the Temple service. After the destruction of the First Temple, these items were seized as spoils of war and Achashverosh inherited them from the previous king.

To relate to this a bit better, imagine if someone prominent stole your grandfather’s kiddush cup and then invited you to a party during which he openly drank non-kosher wine from it. Imagine further that, while drinking from this kiddush cup, he was wearing your grandfather’s favorite sweater, which he had also stolen. Wouldn’t you be furious?

On the contrary, our Rabbis point out that most Jews enjoyed themselves at the festivities. Just 70 years after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish people had forgotten the spiritual magnificence of 410 years of sovereignty in our own Land. We accepted the status quo of living in a host country. We had so lost the awareness of our responsibility to fulfill the Jewish mission in the Land of Israel that we were literally rejoicing with our enemies.

In America after 350 years, we have also forgotten the glory of living as a sovereign nation. We accept today’s status quo. The vast majority of us never even consider that we’re living in a host culture. Like the Jews in Persia, we’ve lost awareness of what it means to be Jewish and why it’s important to be connected to the Land of Israel.

Historically, the Jews were a nation with a common language, geography, history and mission. Using the Torah as our guide, we were chosen to teach the world how to bring G-d close and how to live according to G-d’s instructions. This was, and remains, our national mission. Interestingly, the splendid bigdei kehuna were made from materials donated by individuals and were owned by the nation as a whole. Their purpose was not to gild the individual Kohain, but rather to express the Jewish nation’s longing to grow close to G-d.

The Torah makes it clear that, because of its spiritual qualities, the Land of Israel is uniquely suited to helping Jews accomplish our mission. The Bible and every traditional prayer book are full to bursting with evidence of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people. Simply stated, the Jewish nation requires a connection to Israel to be who we were meant to be and to accomplish what we must accomplish.

This concept of nationhood and national mission doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you’re a Jew in America. Separated from our Land, we’ve lost our awareness of being a nation with a purpose. We’ve forgotten that, as a nation scattered and dissociated from our Land, we cannot fulfill our destiny, complete our mission nor realize our fullest potential.

Today, we see Judaism as a religion, not as a national identity. Whether I identify as a Jew, or not, is viewed as my personal decision. If we were to perceive the situation more accurately, we would realize that a lack of identification with the Jewish people is not just a private decision. Every Jew who opts out weakens the Jewish nation as a whole.

One of the themes of Purim is to see beyond the obvious. We wear costumes and masks on Purim to demonstrate that what’s obvious is not necessarily true. The Book of Esther is the only Biblical book in which G-d’s name does not appear. But that doesn’t mean He’s not on the job! We just have to see beyond the obvious.

Being part of the Jewish nation requires us to see beyond the obvious and notice that Israel, not America, is, was and always will be the center stage of Jewish history.

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