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Parashat Tetzaveh: Keva v. Kavannah 

Parashat Tetzaveh:  Keva v. Kavannah (February 16, 2019)

Rabbi Jaymee Alpert

Our parashah this morning, Parashat Tetzaveh, picks up where last week’s parashah left off.  Terumah is mostly about the blueprint of how the mishkan was to be constructed, while Tetzaveh is about what and who was to go inside the tabernacle.  Once again, the rules are highly detailed, this time focusing on what the priest was to wear while he was on duty, followed by the description of the ordination ceremony of Aaron and his sons.  Let’s just say, I’m glad that rabbis are now given a tallit and a blessing rather than be dashed with ram’s blood.

What I find so interesting about Parashat Tetzaveh, is the tension between fixed ritual and the desire to be spiritually present.  We might call this the tension between keva – that which is fixed, whether with regard to the mishkan practice or the set prayers we say as part of our contemporary service, and kavannah – spiritual intention and the words we say because they truly come from the heart.

At the beginning of Tetzaveh, we learn that Aaron and his sons – the priests – are responsible for kindling the menorah lamps regularly in the Tent of Meeting.  This is the basis for the our ner tamid, the eternal light.  But unlike for us, where we light the ner tamid once and it stays lit, for Aaron and his sons, it was an ongoing job. 

Night after night, they were to kindle the lamps so that the flames would burn from evening to morning.  And let’s remember that it wasn’t as simple as flipping a switch or even striking a match.

I wonder if Aaron ever got bored with this job.  Did he ever zone out and just do what needed to be done without much spiritual intention?  I am guessing or perhaps even projecting that some evenings were more meaningful than others.  Sometimes Aaron approached this job with a real sense of kavannah – intention, while other times, kindling those lamps just felt like ritual keva – he knew what he had to do, so he did it.

Later in the parashah, there is a note in our chumash that quotes a passage from Talmud that comes from Masechet Zevachim (26a).  It is with regard to a priest making a sacrifice.  The Talmud asks, “If a priest’s body is inside the Tent but his head or even his hair remains outside, is he considered having entered the Tent and may he perform the service/sacrifice? 

The answer is that he may not.  The priest needs to be entirely inside the Tent in order to engage in the ritual.

While the Talmud is talking about the physical body of the priest, it’s an easy jump to apply the message spiritually as well.  What happens when our bodies are here in shul but our minds are elsewhere?  Does our participation count?  Can the experience still be meaningful?

I don’t think the answer is as clear for us as it is to the Talmudic rabbis.  Yes, it would be wonderful to be filled with kavannah every time we come to shul.  It would be wonderful to deeply, truly mean every word we say every time we say it, but, and again, I might be projecting here, that doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes the words of our prayers feel like…words.  But that doesn’t mean that coming to synagogue, saying the prayers, being here physically if not emotionally, isn’t worth our while.  I would argue that it is worthwhile, and that it can be meaningful, and I am in good company.

In his book “Man’s Quest for God:  Studies in Prayer and Symbolism,” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the need for keva – for the fixed ritual or prayer exactly because there are times when we lack kavannah

He writes, “How grateful I am to God that there is a duty to worship, a law to remind my distraught mind that it is time to think of God, time to disregard my ego for at least a moment! It is such happiness to belong to an order of the divine will. I am not always in a mood to pray. I do not always have the vision and the strength to say a word in the presence of God. But when I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision is dim, it is duty that gives me insight.”

In other words, sometimes saying the words, even if it feels rote, will lead us to insight and intention.

After reading the specifics of how the priests were to keep the lamps burning, what they were to wear and how they were to be ordained, Parashat Tetzavah takes a bit of a spiritual turn.  God talks about meeting with the Israelites, sanctifying the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and consecrating Aaron and his sons to serve as priests.  Exodus 29:45, which we read earlier, says, “I <God> will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God.” Sforno in his comment, adds that God will be there to receive the Israelites’ service with goodwill and to listen to their prayers.

In a sense, Sforno alludes to keva and kavannah.  If we understand “service” to mean the sacrifices – the prescribed ritual, and “prayers” to mean the prayers the Israelites offer from their hearts, God wants both.  God will be present to receive both.

I wonder what it would mean for us, if we were to carry this notion with us into Musaf.  Whether you are in the mood to pray or not, whether you plan to recite the words on the pages of the siddur or whether you wish to offer your personal prayer, or some combination of both, let us take a moment to prepare ourselves.  Let us center ourselves so that we can be like the priest who was to be fully present in the Tent of Meeting.

Let us spiritually prepare ourselves to enter the space of the Musaf service, so that we may gain strength and insight, and so that God may receive our prayers.