This is the d’var torah that I delivered this week at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.
A boy dreams of a mysterious treasure, hidden in a far-off land. He travels through the deserts of North Africa, in search of the enigma that has appeared to him in his sleep. Journeying with him is an old man, a keeper of ancient wisdom. Through his travels – as is the case in most stories of this type – he learns much about life and his place in the universe. Together on their quests, the boy and the old man are each in possession of stones bearing ancient magical powers. The old man’s stone has the power to turn lead into gold. The boy’s stones have the power to divine the will of God. These are the stories at the heart of Paolo Coehlo’s allegorical legend, The Alchemist.
The world of The Alchemist presents two types of stones that each offer a vision of how to succeed in life. One: search for gold. The other: search for God’s truth. In our own world, there often appears to be two similar approaches to success. One is to direct ourselves outwardly, and search for practical ways to succeed in life. We search for wealth, power, and success in our endeavors. The other is to direct ourselves inwardly, and search for spiritual, introspective success; the things that make us feel worthwhile and valued. It often seems that people swing heavily in one direction, and struggle with finding a connection between succeeding both inwardly and outwardly.
This week, in parashat Pekudei, there appears a symbol of the intersection between our inner and our outer selves. We read of the formation of the bigdei s’rad – the vestments for the Kohen Gadol. Shrouded in secrecy and mysticism, the vestments include the names of the twelve tribes engraved on precious stones, along with the urim and tummim – stones of a mystical and prophetic nature. These are also the names that Coehlo gave to the prophetic stones in The Alchemist. Together, these priestly stones were powerful cultic objects that had the ability to divine the will of God.
The stones and precious gems of the bigdei s’rad carried a great physical and figurative weight. Girded with the names of the twelve tribes emblazoned across his breastplate and on both of his shoulders, we can imagine the awesome sense of responsibility Aaron must have felt towards his clansmen. But for our priestly ancestors, the power of these words was not just figurative, and their weight was not just a matter of their physical mass. When the Israelites wanted to determine the will of God in matters that were beyond human comprehension, they consulted the stones of the priestly vestments. Through the engraved words, the High Priest the power to communicate with God and interpret God’s will.
Towards the end of The Alchemist, Coehlo writes:
God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand His spiritual teachings and the marvels of His wisdom… The world is only the visible aspect of God. And what alchemy does is bring spiritual perfection into contact with the material plane.”
We may not think of alchemy as the most Jewish of subjects, but perhaps a momentary lapse into near-paganism is not so inappropriate, given the cultic nature of the priestly garments. Coehlo suggests that the physical world is a visible reflection of the Divine – whom we cannot see – and that there are ways to bring our two worlds closer to one another. In the same way that our earthly world is meant to be a reflection of God’s domain, how can we make ourselves a reflection of God, upholding the charge that will come later in the Torah – קדושים תהיו – “you shall be holy”?
One answer, I believe, lies in the stones of Aaron’s priestly garments. The stones bearing the names of the twelve tribes are described as being “engraved like seals” – פתוחי חתם (Ex. 28:11, 21; 39:14, 30). The Re’em, Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, a fifteenth century Greek-Ottoman Talmudist, argued that “the engraving is not of a seal, because a seal is not engraved, but that of the signet, which is made to seal letters” (Sefer ha-Mizrachi, Ex. 39). How is a signet engraved? For its messaged to be received, the text needs to be engraved backwards so that when it is stamped, it appears forwards. Rashi agrees, noting that the letters were engraved “inwardly” (Rashi Shemot 28:11). Our text appears to imply that on the Kohen Gadol’s powerful garments, the names of the twelve tribes were actually engraved backwards. What a peculiar site this must have been!
If this is so, and they were written backwards, for whom were they intended? Even Aaron would have had difficulty reading them, looking down upon his chest. The words of these backwards-engraved stones would appear correctly only if impressed upon something else, or if viewed from within himself. The Rabbi Maharil Diskin, a leading biblical commentator of the nineteenth century, in an attempt to resolve this peculiarity, proposes that the engravings on the stones actually did appear in the right direction. In his view, something mystical and supernatural took place, such that the stones appeared to be engraved both inwardly – as the text suggests – and outwardly, in a way that could be perceived by all. His solution was that in truth, they faced inward and outward at the same time.
We are presented with these stones, very earthly objects hewn out of the rocky desert, yet clearly bearing heavenly, esoteric meaning. According to our teacher, Abraham ibn Ezra, these earthly stones function as mirrors for celestial rocks. A poet, exegetical genius, astronomer, and astrologist, ibn Ezra taught that the names of the Israelite tribes on the stones were symbolic of constellations, and that they mirrored the celestial equator – the imaginary dividing line of the zodiac. He believed that the priestly stones were an instrument corresponding to the arrangement of the heavens, and that when used properly, could even predict the future. He wrote that, mysteriously, “these things can only be grasped by the mind… They were divided in a way that could be perceived by the eye” (Ibn Ezra Shemot 28:6).
The division of the night sky into the zodiac is something that can only be understood by our minds – when we look up into the heavens, we do not actually see twelve distinct areas. For ibn Ezra, the priestly garments are tangible reminders of this important connection to the heavens. They hold up a mirror to the relationship between the “upper” and “lower” worlds; between who we are now, and who we have the potential to become in the future. Ibn Ezra is expressing the connection between the micro and the macro; between the inner and outer. In the same way, Judaism is a framework for connecting to something larger than ourselves. We don’t exist merely within our own selves; we connect ourselves intimately to a community around us.
This week’s parasha presents us with an eminently important question: “how do we live our lives with integrity and authenticity both inwardly and outwardly?” The priestly vestments – a seemingly anachronistic instrument for our contemporary, anti-caste sensibilities – offer a model of how to exist in relationship to God and to those around us. Just as the Maharil Diskin suggested that the stones of the vestments appeared the same facing outwards as inwards, we are meant to live our lives in such a way that we appear the same facing in towards ourselves, and out towards the world. In this way, we can bring about a truly divine existence and mirror God’s holiness.
Yet there is a tension in this idea. Often, the image we broadcast to the world is not that which is emblazoned within our hearts. At times we are victims of what the ancient Greeks called akrasia – knowing best but doing worst. At others, we present ourselves in ways that betray our innermost selves. Indeed, the very word for clothes – beged, comes from the same shoresh as the word for betrayal – b’gidah. The relationship between vestments, and our inner selves is echoed in the Talmud: Rabbi Inyani bar Sason says that the Torah includes the laws for the priestly vestments and the laws for the sacrifices so close to each other, in order to draw the connection between our physical behavior and our spiritual purity (BT Zevakhim 88b).
Rabbi Hanina taught that the various accoutrements of the vestments are actually able to atone for impure thoughts, arrogance, brazenness, slander, neglect of civil laws, and idolatry (BT Zevakhim 88b). Now the notion that we should be honest and just in whom we present ourselves to be is a deceptively simple idea, perhaps even an obvious one. Yet it is one which often remains unaddressed. In many ways, searching for the answer to this question is at the heart of our journey as future k’lei kodesh.
Earlier on his journey through the desert, the boy in the Alchemist was accompanied by an Englishman who was himself in search of the titular character. Pondering the meaning of the urim and tummim, the boy struck up a conversation with the man:
Why do they make things so complicated?” The Englishman responded: “So that those who have the responsibility for understanding can understand… It’s only those who are persistent, and willing to study things deeply, who achieve… That’s why I’m here in the middle of the desert.”
Our heritage is born out of the desert, out of mysteries, and out of the quest to bring ourselves closer to the ideal of who we can be. This is the quest to get closer to God, to become the mamlekhet kohanim that we are meant to be. If we are persistent; if we look beyond the words that occasionally appear backwards; if we are willing to look at ourselves deeply, reject betrayal, and portray ourselves outwardly as we are inwardly; then we will have the ability to become mirrors of the Divine.
This week, as we conclude Sefer Shemot, may we go from strength to strength on this journey.