The Holy Art of Sacrifice

Balancing wisdom with passion is the key to achieving justice in the world.

Commentary on Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20 - 30:10

Aaron and his sons are ordained as priests and instructed in the elaborate rituals of sacrifice.

But first they must get dressed.

Parashat Tetzaveh devotes great attention to the preparation of Aaron’s garments, down to the most precise details of color, decoration, and accessories. It also provides interesting instruction as to who should prepare them, and in what frame of mind.

The garments of the priest are designed to literally remind him of his task as community representative and emissary. He is going before the Lord, but he is not going alone or in his own name. The names of all his people have been woven into his garments — sewn into the shoulder pads, and written across the breast plate.

Who Clothes the Priests?

It is interesting to note that while the priesthood is hierarchical (and patrilineal), the task of clothing the priests is left to “chochmei halev” — those who are “wise of heart whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom” (Exodus 28:3).

What does it mean to be “wise of heart” and how does this relate to sacrifice, and to the pursuit of justice?

Wisdom is usually associated with the mind — with linear thinking, rationality, and assimilation of complex ideas. What is wise is not simple. Wisdom is not commonplace, otherwise it would not be wisdom. Hearts, however, are the home of passion and compassion; the heart as we understand it is the organ of love and of empathy.

“Wisdom of the heart” is the place where two of our greatest human capacities come together; the capacity to think and problem-solve merges with the urge to nurture, heal, embrace, and love.

Aaron is sent forth to meet God clothed, literally, in the collected wisdom and love of his community. The center of this garment is the “breast plate of decision” (also translated as “the breastplate of judgment”). It is worn over Aaron’s heart and provides a reminder that as priest and leader, he will be called upon not only to serve and worship, but also, in the most critical moments, to decide and judge.

A breast plate is usually thought of as protection for the heart, our most vulnerable organ. Perhaps there is a message here that difficult judgment calls may be wounding (or even heartbreaking)–but for a leader, they are nevertheless required. Decisions may emanate from the heart or be driven by emotion, but ultimately they must also guard the interests of the community. And they must also be wise, embracing the complexities of multiple needs and interests.

How do we balance wisdom and passion as we go forth to do justice in the world? This is one of the hardest questions, and perhaps the most central. Wisdom should guide our actions. They should be calculated and strategic, and we should know the outcome we hope to produce from our efforts. But “wisdom” alone can mire us in bureaucracy–or a calculated approach that loses sight of what we sought to correct in the first place.

Passion & Compassion

Passion and compassion are essential to social change. They are the fuel that drives us to seek and strive for a better world. But passion needs a container; it needs boundaries and channeling. Wisdom can, like the breastplate, be the protector for passion–as long as passion is the garment that we wear beneath it.

Whether we are designated or self-appointed leaders, we do this work as acts of communal responsibility —  either because we have been invested with leadership from our community, or because we hope others will follow us and our vision.

As a religious leader, Aaron’s role vis-a-vis the community and God was to offer sacrifices — to literally send smoke signals to God on the community’s behalf. His messages were those of thanks, humility, and affirmation of belief.

Our work for social change should also be infused with these values: gratitude for the relative comfort and affluence that enable us to focus not only on our own survival, but also on the state of the world; humility in the face of not having all the answers but being willing to put our minds and hearts to the task; and affirmation of the belief that there is real potential for change, and in inspiration and support from above in repairing the world.

Provided by, an online Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

Discover More

Kiddushin 81

You are fire and I am mere flesh.

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.