CLOTHING AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar MIndfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Tetzaveh, we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
Tetzaveh is a love letter from God to the Jewish people of detailed instruction, for example, of a daily practice performed through specified clothing that the High Priest, our ancestor Aharon, is to wear, so that he will practice balanced Responsibility/Acharayut and Honor/Kavod toward the people and God. These vestments, a highly specialized uniform for the position of High Priest, are made with kavanot/intentions in mind: 1) to assist the High Priest to practice mindfulness (to be awake and alert in the moment); 2) to be mindful for whom he is responsible, of whom he is acting on behalf, which is both God and the people; 3) to enable him to bear the sins of his brethren; and 4) to assist him to concentrate his thoughts on his duties and on his accountability. May we all wear clothing as a spiritual practice that actually assists us in our mindfulness practice to be responsible to God and others and to offer honor to both!
Many spiritual and religious traditions have such clothing: Tzitzit, kippah, tallit, and Star of David or Chamsa come to mind in the Jewish traditions. Let’s explore the High Priest’s specialized clothing in depth: First, in 28:9, he is to wear gold plates on his shoulders that have engraved upon stones housed in the gold the names of the twelve tribes of our ancestors: six on one should and six on the other. He is to carry their symbolic weight, bear the burden of them, with gold on his shoulders. And bearing the burden of someone or a community is not seen as negative or even unpleasant, as if it were something to push away in aversion. No, bearing the burden, Savlanut, in the Mussar tradition is a great obligation, a great responsibility that one is grateful to be chosen to fulfill. We know that God and our ancestors carried us and thus, we carry today’s and future generations.
The Torah generously explains why the High Priest is to wear such clothing with intention: for a memorial. He is to remember. That remembering is to affect this words, thoughts, and deeds. If it doesn’t, then he has failed the practice and performance of a memorial, of zikaron (זכרון).
Then we move into the second piece of performative clothing for the High Priest: the Choshen (חושן), the Breastpiece. A decorative and beautiful square breastplate that is to be bound across his chest, again with the twelve tribes’ names all engraved in stones inside. The Hebrew verb used when describing what the High Priest is to “do” with this clothing is N.S.A. (נ.ש.א)ֿ, which means to carry, to lift up. He is to carry the people. He is to carry our ancestors’ tribal names for the sake of remembrance before he enters the sanctuary, before he approaches God. Meaning, he is not to enter the sanctuary, he is not to approach God unless he has remembered and carried the people with him.
And remember, we are not to do this service alone. It is too great a responsibility for the individual to do alone. That is why the High Priest has other priests around him to assist with the responsibility and service: in our text it is Aharon’s four sons. It is no coincidence that God selected Aharon’s family to assist him. Let us recall that last time we discussed Aharon and his family, which relates to his heart, which is mentioned no less than three times just in the section on the breastplate! We are reminded again and again that he is to wear this over this heart: he is to carry their names over his heart. The seat of wisdom and understanding in our ancestors’ tradition, the heart is the location that is chosen with kavanah/intention where the breastplate should lay over. Earlier in Shemot 4:14, when Moshe is reacting strongly that he is not the person for the job to help free the Hebrew slaves from Egypt’s tyranny, God finally understands that Moshe needs other human support to do what God wants from him: He states that “[Aharon, your brother], is setting out to meet you on your behalf, and he will see you and be happy in his heart.” Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai ties these two pesukim/verses together in Midrash Tanhuma Shemot 27: The heart that was happy for his brother’s important role will ultimately be happy for his own role. (אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בַּר יוֹחַאי: הַלֵּב שֶׁשָּׂמַח בִּגְדֻלַּת אָחִיו, יָבוֹא וְיִשְׂמַח).
The third piece of the High Priest’s clothing to be discussed is the gold plate frontlet worn on the forehead, bearing the inscription Holy l-YHWH, “Holy to the Lord.” The plate is termed tsits (ציץ) in Hebrew, a word that usually means a blossom, flower. And it is with this piece of clothing that the High Priests practice and role takes on an even higher level of significant meaning: he is able to bear the sins (incur responsibility for) of his people. He nasa avon (נשא עון), he lifts up, he carries their sins. He secures atonement for the lack of practice, for the lack of mindfulness of his community. When the people commit an infraction of the rules governing the sacred offerings (due to a lack of mindfulness or ignorance), the High Priests’ golden frontlet serves as a reminder to the him to concentrate his thoughts on his duties and accountability, and this very mindfulness, this consciousness effectively secures atonement on behalf of the people (Sarna, 1991, JPS: Exodus, p. 184).
Finally, we close with the daubing of the blood of the sacrifice on the priest’s extremities, which not only has a purificatory function, but also is highly symbolic performative practice. How so? To cause the priest to attune himself to the very areas where the blood is daubed. The singling out of the ear, hand, and foot instructs the priest to be awake to, to respond to what he hears, to obey the Divine word, and to be responsive to it with his hands in deed (care for this community and make expiation on our behalf) and with his feet, his direction in life, that he should walk in God’s ways (Sarna 1991, JPS: Exodus, p. 189). And be mindful here that it is not only the High Priest upon whom the blood is daubed. It is also his four sons who will serve as minor priests. It is the family who will be on this path together that will give the High Priest the strength to do such serve for God and on behalf of the people.
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In closing, we honor God, our practice, our ancestors, our community, our Torah, and Dharma. I thank God/Hashem, who enables me to be your teacher and to be here together in order to learn and practice Mussar Mindfulness.
Any questions, comments, or concerns, please do be in touch at email@example.com. We value hearing from you about how this practice is going for you: of what benefit is this learning and practice to you.
We practice and ask ourselves:
- Can we bear the burden of our ancestors, particularly when they act out with unbalanced middot?
- Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
- What can our ancestors and the Torah teach us?
- And can we integrate and be mindful of these lessons and what was handed down to us by our ancestors so that we can use this wisdom to make sure that we do not cause more harm and suffering?
Podcast Audio Below:
Awakening Behar: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 33rd Sitting – Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar
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