This weekend, Jews everywhere are gathering to celebrate Purim by reading the story of Esther, Mordechai, Haman, and the rest of the gang. Everyone will be wearing costumes, a lot of people will be enjoying an alcoholic beverage or nine, and most people will be eating sweets and making noise. Of course, this year a lot of that will happen over Zoom or FaceTime, but the raucousness and general high-level crazy will still be present. As a teen growing up in Jerusalem, I once explained Purim to some tourists as the ‘Israeli Halloween,’ but teenage me was wrong. It’s not about spirits or witchiness — it’s about the overwhelming joy of discovering that, against all odds, you’re still alive.
That’s something that resonates a whole lot in February 2021.
Also this weekend, we read ‘Tetzaveh,’ (loosely translated as ‘command them’) the portion of the Bible that spans Exodus 27:20 through 30:10. Basically, the text can be broken down into two parts: The first half is all about what the priests should wear, and the second half is about how the priests should carry out sacrifices. If you get queasy at the sight or description of blood, this is not the parsha for you. If you loved Kill Bill and think over-the-top horror flicks are the bee’s knees, buckle up. It’s about to get really good.
Exodus 29:12 explains that the priests should “take some of the bull’s blood and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger; then pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of blood flicking, animal parts burning, spreading of blood with fingers. Gore galore.
“Didn’t they just spend a zillion verses preparing the clothes for the priests?” I asked my wife, when reading this aloud to her, “They’re gonna get them all dirty with blood and guts!” Ever the parent, my first concern when reading about animal sacrifice has to do with laundry. What kind of stain remover does it take to get innards out of the priestly outfits? And who’s doing this laundry anyway?
Indeed, the garments are involved and take a lot of making. “These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash,” God explains in Exodus 28:4. The breastpiece has twelve rare stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. The robe is made of cloth dyed with rare hues—blues and crimsons. The garments are lavish, and gorgeous. The emanate importance.
The idea behind these garments is to turn Aaron and his sons (Nadav, Avihu, and Itamar) from regular folks who happen to be related to Moses into High Priests, capable of communicating with God, worthy of entering the Holy of Holies. Much like, it strikes me, a Purim costume turns a regular kid into Batman, Spiderman, Princess Elsa, or Queen Esther. What we wear bears heavily on how we feel about ourselves, and there’s perhaps no time of year during which this is more clear than Purim. The kid at a Purim Carnival in a flowing gown is Queen Esther as far as they’re concerned. Who’s to say that this isn’t true? For one night, maybe it is.
We give this experience of trying on different selves, along with whichever other holidays we choose to celebrate, as a gift to our children. Thinking about passing on the heritage of Purim to my little one made two verses stand out to me, amid the blood and precious stones that populate most of Tetzaveh. Right in the middle of the parsha, God says to “bring [Aaron’s] sons forward; clothe them with tunics. And [place] wind turbans upon them. And gird both Aaron and his sons with sashes. And so they shall have priesthood as their right for all time. You shall then ordain Aaron and his sons.” (Exodus 29:8-9)
Did Aaron’s sons have a choice in whether they wanted to be priests, for all time? Would they have chosen a different path, had it been made available to them? As far as the text is concerned, it doesn’t matter. Once they’re wearing the tunics and sashes of the priesthood they’re in. The English text describes this as a right, a word that doesn’t appear in Hebrew. The Hebrew describes it as a law, which is a whole lot more problematic to me.
All the choices we make as parents, whether it’s how to celebrate a holiday or what kind of food our kids get to eat, have a lasting impact. I would wager that most parents hope that their kids keep to the traditions they raise them with. I wonder a lot about how I’ll feel if my little one grows up to embrace traditions that deviate from those I chose for him. Sure, my wife and I are creating habits and customs now in our home, and we say all the time that we’ll be fine with whichever path our kiddo chooses. Astronaut? Great! Bricklayer? Also great! Ballerina? Awesome!
Will we really be fine, though, or will we worry if he chooses a path we don’t understand? I honestly don’t know. In a way, I think that consecrating children to a predetermined life, the way Aaron does for Nadav, Avihu, and Itamar, is the easy way. It’s also the way of least growth, though. In so many ways, the challenges in life and how we handle them are what defines us. I want to believe that, even if our kiddo grows up to make choices we don’t understand, we’ll try to learn and grow with him. I want to hope that we’ll be there to provide whichever garments are necessary for our little one to feel invincible. I know that we’ll be there to wash out the stains, or get new clothes, when things don’t go as planned. And we’ll be trying hard to remember that most things aren’t “for all time.” Most things are for right now, until we’ve grown enough to move on, and that’s just how it should be.