Parashat Tetzaveh

Responsible Clothing

Following the example of the High Priest's bands, issue bracelets can raise awareness--the awareness of their wearer.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

I've been wearing two green plastic bracelets for months. Modeled after Lance Armstrong's yellow "Livestrong" bracelets, my wristbands are supposed to call attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. But how well do they accomplish that goal? Bracelet enthusiasts argue that the bracelets raise awareness about the genocide. Cynics point to the superficial nature of the gesture: Can social activism take place at the Save Darfur Store? 

american jewish world serviceGiven the proliferation of colored issue bracelets, there is little knowledge of what cause each color represents. A Slate Magazine columnist complains, "Purple, for instance, now signifies support for Alzheimer patients, abused animals, battered women, epileptics, children in foster care, or people with irritable bowel syndrome, among other things…With so much to be aware of, awareness bracelets have reverted to signifying nothing more than color itself. Idealism has devolved into fashion."

The High Priest's Garments

A garment mentioned in this week's Torah portion offers a path to reclaim issue bracelets. In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron, the High Priest of the Israelites, is commanded to wear two jewel-encrusted bands on his shoulders, engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Careful attention is paid to their purpose. They are to be worn "as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry…for remembrance before God (Exodus 28:12)."

Describing the aim of the High Priest's bands, the word "remembrance" is emphasized through its repetition. But what is Aaron meant to remember? One commentator suggests Aaron wears the names to remember those for whom he is spiritually responsible.

The visible names heighten Aaron's awareness of those he represents. This awareness may be visceral, evoking Eduardo Galeano's definition of remembrance from his native Spanish: "Recordar: To remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart."

Wearing the names and emotionally connecting to the people they represent, Aaron's own awareness of personal responsibility is heightened. 

Raising Awareness, Taking Action

Here, there is a difference in purpose between the Torah's remembrance bands and the assumed purpose of the contemporary issue bracelet. The High Priest wears his engraved bands as a pre-requisite to his service to the people before God. He wears them to effect his own awareness--not to raise the awareness of others. 

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.