Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Tetzaveh – Institutional Wonders

Prophets are dramatic. Everyone loves a prophet (so long as the prophet is not angry at them.) The prophetic voice is rich with indignation, laced with scorn and elevated by righteousness.

By contrast, no one loves a bureaucrat. The person who files papers, insists on the correct manner of filling out forms, the one who draws lines and limits – it seems to bespeak a timidity of soul. Prophets are lone figures thundering from mountaintops. Bureaucrats are paper pushers who write bullet-pointed emails from the office.

Of course this is a caricature. This week, however, we turn in the Torah from the world of Moses to the world of Aaron, from the prophet to the Priest. And the Priest may be said to be, with some exaggeration, a kind of sacred bureaucrat. The Priest was there to follow procedures, to do things correctly, to maintain the institution of the tabernacle and the Temple.

In our world we see that institutions are not valued as they once were. From the courts to the universities to the halls of congress, people distrust the institutions that for so long stood as pillars of American life. For Jews, the synagogue was the central institution of Jewish life, but that too has come under pressure in an anti-institutional age.

Yet the Torah reminds us that institutions are critical to the health and survival of a community. They take time and care to build and are all to easy to destroy. Everything from the clothing of the Priest to the exact procedures matter; they are not trivial details but essential accoutrements of a properly functioning system.

We don’t note often enough that sacred work happens in synagogue committees. Over the coffee and stale bagels, congregants and lay leaders in all sorts of organizations are doing something holy, but the day to day arrangements are essential to seed the ground for spiritual growth. In a beautiful parable, our sages speak of two men carrying large stones. An observer asks them what they are doing. “I’m carrying a heavy stone,” says the first. The second answers, “I’m building the Temple of Solomon.”

Earlier, I commented glibly about no one loving a bureaucrat. Yet Aaron was dearly loved by the people, and not only because he was a pursuer of peace. I believe Israel understood that institutions are essential and those who care for them are shepherds of our welfare.