Undressed to Kill – Parshat Tzav

It’s time to get dressed.

We’ve been talking about the Tabernacle and the offerings for weeks now. The big inauguration ceremony is just around the corner, in next week’s parsha. We have just finished detailing the various sacrifices that will be offered. Now that everything is in place, it’s time to get the priests ready for work.

Chapter Eight begins:

The Lord Spoke to Moses, saying: Take Aaron, and his sons with him, and the priestly garments, the anointing oil… (Lev. 8:2)

קַח אֶתאַהֲרֹן, וְאֶתבָּנָיו אִתּוֹ, וְאֵת הַבְּגָדִים, וְאֵת שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה

Moses, the Master of Ceremonies, brings Aaron forward, and personally, step by step, he dresses his brother. First he washes him with water.  Then he puts on the tunic, wraps the sash and ties it, overlays the robe, and ties that.  He puts the breastplate on and fixes it in place. Then he begins to his headdress on, slowly wrapping the turban, around, and around, and then setting the crown in place…

Now, at this point, the yearly reader of the Torah may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. For there is something strangely familiar about this moment, as if we’ve seen it before. But no, something is different…backwards…

It isn’t an earlier episode in the Torah that this passage evokes, but a later one. For this scene is the mirror image of Aaron’s death.

Towards the end of Book of Numbers, after a lot of wandering and a lot of drama, God suddenly commands Moses:

Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up to Mount Hor. Strip Aaron of his garments and put them onto his son Eleazar.  There Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead. (Num. 20:25-26)

קַח, אֶתאַהֲרֹן, וְאֶתאֶלְעָזָר, בְּנוֹ; וְהַעַל אֹתָם, הֹר הָהָר. וְהַפְשֵׁט אֶתאַהֲרֹן אֶתבְּגָדָיו, וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּם אֶתאֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ; וְאַהֲרֹן יֵאָסֵף, וּמֵת שָׁם.

As usual, Moses does what he’s told. They go up the mountain, again “in the sight of the whole community,” and Moses removes Aaron’s priestly clothing, “and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain.”

What a devastating moment this must have been for Moses, not only to have to walk his brother to his death, but to be the one to physically strip him of his regal garments, leaving him to die as naked as he was born. How heavy those robes must have been, how agonizing every successive removal, as the two brothers said goodbye in silence.

But now we realize that the experience was weightier still. For Moses had done this all before, in reverse. In this final undressing, how could he not have been thinking of the day when he dressed Aaron in these same clothes, preparing him for holiness and glory? All of that honor, all of that beauty, all of the promise of that moment is over, forever.

And we are invited to experience that haunting echo, together with Moses, through a linguistic connection there in the text:

In Leviticus: Take Aaron, and his sons…  קַח אֶתאַהֲרֹן, וְאֶתבָּנָיו אִתּוֹ

… and dress him up.

In Numbers: Take Aaron, and his son…  קַח, אֶתאַהֲרֹן, וְאֶתאֶלְעָזָר, בְּנוֹ

…and strip him down.

The repetition of that verb, that command – take Aaron (קח את אהרן) – is striking.  And then to follow it with the specific and unusual instruction that Moses be the one, first to robe, and then to unrobe, his brother.

The rabbis, rest assured, did not miss this connection.

In the Sifra – a work so classically associated with Leviticus that it’s often referred as Torat Cohanim, the ‘Torah of the Priests,’ we find this lovely reading:

And [Moses] placed the tunic upon him and tied the sash – This teaches that Moses was Aaron’s deputy.  And just as he was to undress him, so he would be the one to dress him.  For just as he was his deputy in life, so would he be his deputy in death, as it says, “Take Aaron, and his son Eleazar.. and strip him of his vestments.”

ויתן עליו את הכתנת ויחגר אתו באבנטמלמד שנעשה משה סגן הכהנים לאהרן, והוא היה מפשיטו והוא היה מלבישו. וכשם שנעשה לו סגן בחייו כך נעשה לו סגן במותו שנאמר (במדבר כ, כהכו) קח את אלעזר בנווהפשט את אהרן את בגדיו‘.

Having thus sensed in this inauguration ceremony a premonition of Aaron’s end, we can begin to detect other hints that, even in this moment of celebration, death is in the air. Look, for example, at the language used in the verse that describes Moses washing Aaron, just before clothing him:

Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward, and washed them in water (8:6)

וַיַּקְרֵב מֹשֶׁה, אֶתאַהֲרֹן וְאֶתבָּנָיו; וַיִּרְחַץ אֹתָם, בַּמָּיִם.

Brought them forward – vayikarev (ויקרב) – is the same language we use for bringing forward offerings – korbanot (קרבנות) – onto the altar. Aaron then becomes, in a sense, the first offering in the Tabernacle. If that is true, then when Moses ties Aaron tight, first with one belt and then another, it is as if Aaron is being bound to the altar, much as Isaac once was.  For as Aaron takes on this new role as High Priest, he is essentially offering up his life.

This is dangerous work, after all. In the very next parsha, we’ll see two of Aaron’s sons die for lighting the wrong fire in the Tabernacle. And every year on Yom Kippur, we sing about how when the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, we were elated – in large part because if anything had gone wrong, he would have died. Not to mention that the whole job is to oversee a constant stream of slaughter and sacrifice. Aaron will literally be surrounded by death.

So it is no wonder that the very moment he dons the priestly robe, it is glimmering with little flickers of ominous light, casting the foreshadows of his own death.

We, the careful readers, can pick up on these clues. But what about Aaron – did he sense, as he was being dressed that day, that he was beginning a march towards his own demise? Perhaps, on some level. Rashi tells us that the command to “Take Aaron” meant:

pull him in with words   –    קחנו בדברים ומשכהו

In other words: convince him, talk him into it. Aaron had to be persuaded to accept the position, perhaps, because some part of him knew that it was terminal.

And what about Moses? Did he know? Surely, when he led his brother up to the mountain to die, and undressed him there, he must have been reminded of that day when he dressed him up in those same clothes. But what about here, in our parsha? Did Moses, the greatest of prophets, already know that Aaron’s death was coming?

Tradition tells us that Moses wrote the Torah, but there are various theories of how it was composed. One position, recorded in the Talmud (Gittin 60a) is that Moses wrote the Torah in many sittings, scroll by scroll, over the course of the story we read, transcribing his successive conversations with God, and the events of the journey. According to that theory, he can still be surprised by what happens.

But the other position is that Moses wrote the whole Torah down – or at least, heard what he was going to write – during his forty days and nights on Mount Sinai. What that would mean, strangely enough, is that when he came down from the mountain, he already knew everything that was going to happen for the rest of his life. So even as he was in the midst wrapping Aaron up to be the High Priest, Moses knew exactly when he would eventually would unwrap Aaron to die.

What was it like for Moses, writing out the story of his own brother’s death?

I bet he wrote it down exactly the way he dressed Aaron that Inauguration Day – with a lot of love, and a trembling hand.

About Rabbi David Kasher

Check Also

I’m Dead! Now, What?

Join author Rick Light on June 10, 2024, at Boulder JCC for a workshop on Jewish death practices, including a free book and Q&A session.

white concrete building

Prayers for a New Israel

A Poem as we move between Passover and Shavuot.