When I was six-years-old, my parents signed me up to play softball. I already had a baseball bat and glove, but what I remember most is the first time I got a team jersey. I was so excited to put on that royal blue and red shirt. I got to show everyone that I played softball, and whose team I was on. (It was the Baskin Robins Blue Jays).
The truth is, I was probably more excited about wearing that jersey than I was about playing the game itself. I wasn’t… very good. My parents never miss the opportunity to joke: “oh sure, our son’s a rabbi… but you should have seen him tryto play in the outfield.”
But I loved wearing that uniform, even off the field. We love wearing our affiliations on our sleeves – broadcasting to the world a little part of our identity, and showing off whose team we’re on.
I’ve been thinking back on my history with baseball jerseys in light of what we read this week in the Torah.
We read an elaborate description of the special clothes that the high priests get to wear while performing their roles in the mishkan. The Torah tells us that gifted artisans make these beautifully adorned clothes. They are crimson red and purple and royal blue, made from fine linen. And they have gold and fine gems adorning them: emerald, sapphire, amethyst, crystal, the list goes on. These outfits – uniforms, really – bestow dignity and gravitas upon the priests. This is a team you wanted to be on.
But right in the middle of these instructions is something mysterious. The high priest – Aaron – wears a gilded breastplate. And on it are some precious stones. And on these stones are engraved the names of the twelve tribes of Israel – the very people he represents.
And the Torah says that the stones are to be engraved like seals.
Have you ever seen a seal – like an ancient seal that was used to send messages with an official emblem? For it to work, for its messaged to be received, the text needs to be engraved backwards, so that when it is stamped, it appears forwards.
What this means is that on the high priest’s powerful garments, the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were actually engraved backwards.
The question is: who were this backward team-names intended for?
Certainly not for all of the Israelites, who would have had difficulty deciphering them.
And Aaron – the guy wearing the clothes – would have looked pretty strange, tilting his head, looking down upon himself. The words of these backwards-engraved stones would appear correctly only if impressed upon something else. Or, perhaps, if we could imagine viewing them from within himself.
What’s the secret here?
I think the Torah is hinting that the names of the tribes aren’t meant to be like a jersey or a band’s t-shirt. They’re not meant to broadcast your team to everyone else. Everybody already knows that Aaron is the High Priest, just from the rest of his elaborate uniform. They don’t need to see their names to know he’s on their team.
Instead, these backward-names symbolize something for the person who wears the uniform, and onlyfor that person.
As the High Priest, I imagine that it would have been easy for Aaron to get entirely absorbed in the intricacies of his holy work inside the sanctuary; to be intoxicated by the spiritual highs that he must have felt. Alone, in the holiest place on earth, so close to God… why would Aaron ever want to leave?
And so, I think these backwards-names are an intimate reminder to Aaron of who else he’s in a sacred relationship with; who else he is serving.
The only way to comprehend these backward-names is to imagine as if you were seeing them from within yourself – to put yourself in a frame of mind where you’re intimately aware of your role in relationship to everyone.
It’s like if you were to wear a baseball jersey inside out. It changes the ritual of donning a uniform. It becomes something that’s not about projecting outwardly what team you’re on for everyone else to see, but an inward signal: at reminder of your own responsibilities to your relationships.
We know we live in a world where silos are growing; where it can be easy to rely on outward symbols, on virtue-signaling to test who we can and should be in relationship with. Even who we can talk to; who we can learn from.
The model of Aaron’s priestly uniform switches this up. It says: instead of being concerned about projecting to everyone else whose team you’re on; instead of being concerned with judging others by what team they’re on; first, you should think about your own sense of obligations. What’syourrole in nurturing connection, community, and service to something greater than yourself? Where do youstand?
I saw a remarkable illustration of this, just last night here at Sixth & I. Howard Schultz – who you might have heard maybe running for President of the United States (or maybe not) – spoke here, on our bimah. Without advocating any political affiliation or policy, I want to share a powerful image that I saw last night:
There was Howard Schultz – someone who has aspirations of becoming the most powerful person in the world – speaking beneath the message emblazoned above our holy ark. The same message written above arks all around the world: Da lifnei mi atah omed:Know before whom you stand.
Normally this is a reminder to all of us that when we pray, we imagine ourselves as standing in the presence of God. But I was struck that it might also be a reminder of whom else we stand before: the rest of our community. It’s the same message on the High Priest’s uniform: Yes, you work in the presence of God. But don’t forget about everyone else.
It’s okay to want to have a close circle; a team that you feel connected to; a tribe. But don’t forget your place and your role in that circle. That’s why Aaron’s priestly clothes had the names of all twelve tribes. They’re right near his heart, engraved in a mysterious way on purpose, in order to signal the required level of commitment to others.
It’s easy to say to ourselves: “sure, I know who I’m in community with.” But what’s the next step? What do we actually need to doto make this real in our lives? What reminders do we need to live our lives with integrity and authenticity, both inwardly and outwardly?
Aaron could have worn his priestly uniform with the tribal names facing outward – read normally. Sure, he could have cried out to everyone “Hey, we’re on the same team!” But he might have forgotten his place on that team. Like when I was more excited to wear the softball uniform than to play the game itself.
Instead, he wears a uniform that’s a little bit inside-out. It forces you to pause and adjust your perspective; to look a little deeper. It’s a corrective to our human tendency to want to project affiliation more than to do the hard work on the inside. And it becomes a profound reminder to all of us of the little things we need to do to remind ourselves of our most important relationships.