Widening the Circle

On Parasha Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10

In 2002, Halle Berry made history as the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Leticia Musgrove in “Monsters Ball.” Through euphoric tears she began her acceptance speech. “This moment is so much bigger than me,” she said. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you…for choosing me to be the vessel for which [this] blessing might flow.”

Dorothy Dandridge was, of course, the first black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1954, and several years later Lena Horne achieved a similar milestone for her Tony nomination for “Best Actress in a musical.” In 1974, almost half a century after the start of the Academy Awards, Diahann Carroll was only the fourth African American woman to be nominated for Best Actress. None of these brilliant women won their respective nominations, and yet when Halle Berry heard her name announced at the 74th annual Academy Awards, theirs were the first out of her mouth. In her moment of victory, while making history, she called back to those who had paved the way, and looked forward through a door that had finally been cracked open.

This week’s parshah, or Torah portion, is Tetzaveh, meaning “you will command,” it contains the instructions Moses gives to the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai. God tells Moses to bring forth his brother Aaron, as well as Aaron’s four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, to serve as God’s Kohenim, God’s priests. These individuals will hold a special and sacred relationship with God, and so, of course, they must also be given special priestly outfits. Moses gathers together every skilled craftsmen from the people of Israel and instructs them on how to create these sacral vestments. They are to make a breast piece, an ephod, resembling a shoulder-cape or mantle, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash. These items must be made of only the finest gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen. And attached to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod will be two lazuli stones, deep-blue metamorphic rocks, each with its own unique engraving.

וּפִתַּחְתָּ֣ עֲלֵיהֶ֔ם שְׁמ֖וֹת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“Engrave upon them,” God says, “the names of the tribes of Israel”

שִׁשָּׁה֙ מִשְּׁמֹתָ֔ם עַ֖ל הָאֶ֣בֶן הָאֶחָ֑ת וְאֶת־שְׁמ֞וֹת הַשִּׁשָּׁ֧ה הַנּוֹתָרִ֛ים עַל־הָאֶ֥בֶן הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית כְּתוֹלְדֹתָֽם׃

“six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth.”

God tells Moses, “Attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder-pieces לִפְנֵ֧י יְהֹוָ֛ה לְזִכָּרֹֽן for remembrance before God.” (Exodus 28: 9-12)

At the surface this instruction seems almost commemorative, like one who carries around a picture of deceased loved ones in their wallet. But the use of the word לְזִכָּרֹֽן, meaning remembrance, seems to indicate something deeper. Rashi, a medieval biblical commentator from France, writes that the word לְזִכָּרֹֽן is used “for a memorial – so that the Holy One…will see the names of the tribes written before God and will remember their righteousness.” (Rashi on Exodus 28:12) In the Sifra, one of our books of biblical exegesis, one rabbi adds that the ephod, the garment upon which these stones will be attached, is made of fine twisted linen specifically in order that “[Aaron] can enter with it into the holy of holies,” the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle, where God’s presence resides. Meaning that this piece of clothing, bearing the names of the 12 tribes of Jacob, was created expressly with the intention of being worn before God in the holiest of holy locations.

It's clear that having these names engraved upon Aaron’s garments, the names of his ancestors who formed the covenant with God and by whose efforts he came into being, is not merely commemorative; it is also fundamental to his very role as a priest. He is charged with bearing the names of his bloodline upon his chest as a reminder of their righteousness and all that they believed in. It is meant to guide his actions as a leader of the Israelite community, and inspire him to fight for the future they never got to see.

During Black History Month, we work to recognize the achievements made by African Americans and their central role in U.S. history. We lift up those who fought for freedom and justice in the face of deep inequality, and use their stories as inspiration for the betterment of our society. This is the time when we recite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s enduring words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” When we remind ourselves of the immense progress we have made, the challenges we have overcome, the changes we have implemented. Black History Month is about calling back to those who paved the way, while simultaneously looking forward to whatever may lie ahead.

But we know that just looking back isn’t enough. This year marks the 20th anniversary of that iconic Academy Award speech and Halle Berry remains alone, the sole woman of color to have won the Academy Award for Best Actress since the awards’ inception almost 94 years ago. In an interview that aired this past week she said, “I…feel completely heartbroken that there's no other woman standing next to me in 20 years. I thought, like everybody else, that night meant a lot of things would change…That didn't happen. No other woman is standing there."[1]

Berry did not name the fierce women that came before her, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, because she planned to be the sole black woman with the title of “Best Actress”. No, she did it as an acknowledgement of those who had fought so that she and others could be on that stage, and as a call for increased visibility and inclusivity in the future. Aaron does not simply wear the names of his ancestors, those who never entered the Promised Land, for the purpose of remembering their righteousness. He also bears their names as a way of acknowledging that he is but one link in the chain of Jewish history, continually working to sustain the covenant with God and lead the Jewish people towards salvation. Progress is never linear, not for the ancient Israelites nor for the Academy Awards, and sometimes one step forward can mean two steps back. Naming those whose shoulders we stand upon is a way of acknowledging our progress, but it is by no means the end of our sacred work.

The arc of the moral universe will only bend if we make it bend. If we recognize that many of our laws and practices continue to favor some over others; that the inclusion and equity we cherish remains a goal rather than a reality; and that in order to achieve the future that our ancestors fought for, we must also be active participants in its creation. We are responsible for widening the circle of our shared society, welcoming in those who are different and tearing down ancient systems of oppression and hate. Rather than simply lifting up the names of our forebears, we must also channel their dreams into action, using their stories as fuel to propel our world forward. Because we are also but one link in the chain of human history, and those who have yet to be born are counting on us!

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