Navigating Risk in our Holy Pursuits External Inbox

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, we read the manufacturing instructions for Aaron's vestments. He is the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and his distinctive clothing contributes to the majesty and mystery of the role: there is to be a breastpiece, an ephod (like an apron), a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. Everything is to be made of beautiful and colorful materials -- linen yarns and precious metals, gemstones and dyes -- from his head-piece down to the very bottom hem of his robe, where ornate golden bells and pomegranates will hang for adornment.

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, we read the manufacturing instructions for Aaron's vestments. He is the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and his distinctive clothing contributes to the majesty and mystery of the role: there is to be a breastpiece, an ephod (like an apron), a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. Everything is to be made of beautiful and colorful materials -- linen yarns and precious metals, gemstones and dyes -- from his head-piece down to the very bottom hem of his robe, where ornate golden bells and pomegranates will hang for adornment.

Regarding the robe with the hem of bells and pomegranates, though, the instructions take on an ominous tone: "Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out -- that he may not die" (Exodus 28:35). A similar caution accompanies the instructions around his linen breeches: "They shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die" (Exodus 28:43).

Both of these verses contain grave warnings... reminders that Aaron's holy business has a dangerous side to it. Come too close to fire, the text seems to say, and you might get burned. (For anyone who recalls the tragic tale of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, which appears a bit later in the narrative, you know that these are not throwaway lines... this is precisely what happens to them.) For Aaron in Parashat Tetzaveh, however, there isn't much choice. With the threat of death looming out the corner of his eye, Aaron must push through whatever fear he might be feeling in order to perform his duties on behalf of the Israelites.

These lines drawing attention to the extreme danger of the Kohen Gadol's service reminded me of a New York Times article published last weekend, entitled "What Scares the World's Most Daring Olympians." Through interviews with some three dozen athletes, the report probes a wide range of fears -- "the fear of missing the Olympics, of regret, of disappointing family and friends, of losing control of where their story goes or how their career ends" -- but ends up honing in on the number one fear from across all of these athletes and extreme winter sports: the fear of injury or death. As the article explains, successful Olympic athletes must learn to acknowledge their fear, to analyze and understand it, to work with it, and to push past it. In the words of the report: "To reach the Olympics means not only having more talent than most others in the world, but also being more daring. It is taking risks, thoughtfully."

This theme -- of recognizing risk and fear, and moving forward (thoughtfully and purposefully) in spite of them -- feels incredibly relevant right now. As Omicron numbers drop, for example, we are faced daily with questions about how to best navigate risk as individuals, while state and federal governments similarly tussle over questions like mask mandates. One way or another, we're all fundamentally asking: how do we assess risk accurately so that we can move forward, even in the face of fear?

Yesterday, I heard Ruth Messinger, Global Ambassador of the American Jewish World Service, speak on the topic of Moral Courage, which takes this theme to the next level. She began by asking everyone to think of a time when they had acted with moral courage and to identify how that felt, and then to consider the converse -- a time when they had failed to act with moral courage -- and identify how that felt. She spoke with reverence about individuals who understood that, in making a statement or taking an action, they were risking a lot (in some cases, their lives!); however, they felt they had a moral imperative to do the right thing... and the examples she gave ranged from AJWS grantees who work for human rights in the face of oppressive regimes, to righteous heroes who saved Jews during the Shoah, to Liz Cheney who in recent weeks has attempted to speak truth to power inside the Republican party. Ruth Messinger urged us to highlight the stories of people who stick their necks out, so that they can serve as inspirations to us all.

Finally, next Tuesday will be the 14th day of Adar I, a special day called "Purim Katan." This minor holiday comes only in leap years, where -- one month before the actual celebration of Purim -- we have an opportunity to begin to think about the themes of Purim and hear advance echoes of the Megillah's story, a tale which is, at its core, about finding courage in the face of fear.

And so, with images swirling in my head -- of the Kohein Gadol's garments and snow-covered mountains, truth-tellers and courageous queens -- this is the core lesson I'm taking from Parashat Tetzaveh this week: The world is filled with extreme beauty, and also with risks and fear. Even if we aren't high priests or Olympic athletes, heroes or queens, each of us must determine for ourselves how to manage risk, befriend our fears, and move forward anyway... thoughtfully and carefully, perhaps, but with all the courage we can muster.

I encourage you to enter into the theme, and consider for yourself this week: What is my "holy work"? When have I had to conquer fear in order to achieve something I wanted to do? In what circumstances, and for what worthy causes, am I willing to risk a lot in order to stand up for what I believe in?

Wishing us all a week of courage and fortitude!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rachel