Altars and Roles in Tetzaveh and under the Banyan

Altars, Costumes and Roles in Tetzaveh

Jerusalem, February 8, 2014

Musing on the afternoon of Shabbat Tetzaveh

On Assi Ghat in Varanasi, across from the Gangha View Hotel, there is a large tree, perhaps a banyan, I don’t recall right now. Each evening, the tree becomes a temple, filled with people chanting, praying, and just sitting at the foot of a tall slender sadhu. From head to foot, the sadhu’s skin is covered with gray ash. He wears a simple robe and carries a staff.  Many years ago, from the roof deck of the hotel, night after night, I watched this sadhu interact with the worshippers who gathered around him. I watched the transformation of a tree, of what had appeared, to my eyes, to be a simple roadside tree, into an altar.

A few evenings later, I joined the assembly, and asked the sadhu, who seemed to understand and speak a bit of English (he previously had been a lieutenant in the Indian Army), “what do you do when fear arises?”  “No fear,” he replied, and pointing to his arm, the skin covered with layers of ash, he said, “clothing.”

When you know that your skin is merely clothing, that your role is merely clothing, that your identity is merely clothing, gold- covered, or ash-covered, housing for your soul, spirit, light, purity…a covering for what is untouchable by this world of form and appearance, what is there to fear?

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, the entire community is in devotion to creating garments for the High Priests. Moses has heard the voice of God, now giving specific detailed instructions for the people to give up their most precious jewels and metal and linens to construct clothing and coverings for the priests to wear.  When the priests, Aaron and his sons, wear the specific eight meticulously created bejeweled vestments, they “become elevated.”  The donning of these clothes, made by the people, in an act of pure devotion, will elevate the priests to be in service to creating the space for god to live in our midst.

Sitting here in Jerusalem, I am struck by the interplay of devotion to role and freedom from role. Here, the streets are filled with men and women showing their devotion by covering their skin with an amazing array of hijabs and wigs and caps and scarves and fur hats and robes.  Whether they wear clothing inlaid with precious sapphires and gold trimmed thread or cover themselves with ash, the covering seems key to an expression of devotion that gives a deep sense of meaning and place to people.

The challenge may be for us to incline our hearts and eyes so we connect with the devotion, to the life -enriching meaning and purpose behind the clothing, and learn to give up fear that there is anything different under the skin.

Altars, Costumes and Roles in Tetzaveh




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Author: robertaindia

In the world with a peaceful heart

One thought on “Altars and Roles in Tetzaveh and under the Banyan”

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