With gems and words "upon our hearts"

On the surface, this week's Torah portion seems to be all about the bling, but there is a deeper message encoded about what we take to heart!

On the surface, this week's Torah portion seems to be all about the bling, but there is a deeper message encoded about what we take to heart!

Much of Parashat Tetzaveh focuses on the clothing that Aaron will wear on the job, as High Priest. One of my favorite pieces of his uniform is the fancy breastplate. It featured twelve special gemstones -- carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, jacinth, agate, crystal, beryl, lapis lazuli, and jasper -- arranged in a 3x4 grid and framed in gold. The Torah explicitly states (in Exodus 28:21) that these twelve stones correspond to the names of the twelve sons/tribes of Israel.

Thus, Exodus 28:29 teaches, "v'nasa aharon et sh'mot b'nai yisrael b'choshen ha-mishpat al libo b'vo'o el ha-kodesh l'zikaron lifnei adonai tamid," "thus, Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision upon his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times." In other words, this shiny garment that rests upon Aaron's chest serves to remind him of who he represents and why he does this sacred work.

The High Priest's breastplate isn't the only time the Torah instructs someone to place something upon their heart. From the V'ahavta paragraph of our Shema prayer, you may be familiar with the phrase "v'hadevarim ha-eileh asher anochi m'tzavecha hayom al levavecha," "and these words which I command you on this day shall be upon your heart" (Deuteronomy 6:6).

One of the Chasidic masters, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, has a famous commentary on this line of Shema. He notes the unusual construction in the phrasing: let these words be "upon" your heart. He wonders: Wouldn't we have expected that the words should actually reside "in" our hearts rather than simply "upon" them? The Kotzker Rebbe answers his own question: the ideal is for the words of Torah to be within our hearts. But, he teaches, sometimes our hearts are closed. Therefore, our strategy should be to pile the words of Torah upon our hearts, so that at the moment our hearts open, the words will slip right in.

This interpretation of the "al libo / al l'vavecha" phrase was on my mind as I watched Merrick Garland give an emotional answer this week in his confirmation hearing, to Senator Cory Booker's question about his motivation to serve this country. Merrick Garland's family history must always sit upon his heart, and in this moment, the nation was able to witness in real time as these origin stories slipped into his heart, penetrating deeply. (If you haven't seen the video clip, it's well worth a minute of your time.)

This theme of "al libo / al l'vavecha" - "upon the heart" - also feels like helpful Torah to me in this moment, when -- as individuals and communally -- we are slogging through difficult pandemic days. All of us have messages -- words, stories, motivations -- that are already sitting right there, on top of our hearts, just waiting to fall in when they are most needed. And, Jewish tradition provides us with the opportunity to constantly refresh these messages, placing new words upon our hearts so that we will be able to access them in the future.

Tomorrow night is one such opportunity: a chance to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing Megillat Esther. This obligation applies whether we are accessing the story for the very first time, or hearing it for the umpteenth time. As we listen and read along, we place the words of the Purim story upon our hearts. There they will remain -- dazzling and sparkling like the jewels adorning Aaron's breastplate -- reminding us of who we are and where we've come from. And, whenever our hearts open a bit and the time is right, the words will slip right in and be there for us.

Looking forward to celebrating Purim with you tomorrow evening. Bring on the sparkle!!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum