Torah Weekly

For the week ending 15 February 2003 / 13 Adar I 5763

Parshat Tetzaveh

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
Become a Supporter Library Library


G-d tells Moshe to command the Jewish People to supply pure olive oil for the menorah in the Mishkan (Tent of Meeting). He also tells Moshe to organize the making of the bigdei kehuna (priestly garments): A breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a checkered tunic, a turban, a sash, a forehead-plate, and linen trousers. Upon their completion, Moshe is to perform a ceremony for seven days to consecrate Aharon and his sons. This includes offering sacrifices, dressing Aharon and his sons in their respective garments, and anointing Aharon with oil. G-d commands that every morning and afternoon a sheep be offered on the altar in the Mishkan. This offering should be accompanied by a meal-offering and libations of wine and oil. G-d commands that an altar for incense be built from acacia wood and covered with gold. Aharon and his descendants should burn incense on this altar every day.


To B or not to B?

"These are the clothes that they shall make: a breastplate" (28:4)

Clothing can represent the ultimate in narcissism and conceit, the vain and the transitory, or they can reflect the "glory and the splendor" (28:2) of the service of the Almighty as are the clothes of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) described in this week's Torah portion.

Clothes can be a means of assimilation, an attempt to blend into a non-Jewish world. Or they can be the proud badge of a Jew.

This is the story of Major Mike Neilander and his buddies who "wore" their Judaism with "glory and splendor."

"In the fall of l990, things were heating up in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. I had been an Army Captain and a helicopter maintenance test pilot for a decade, and received notice that I would be transferred to the First Cavalry Division which was on alert for the Persian Gulf War. Consequently, I also got wind of the Department of Defense "dog tag dilemma" vis-a-vis Jewish personnel. Then, as now, Jews were forbidden by Saudi law to enter the country. But our Secretary of Defense flat out told the King of Saudi Arabia, "We have Jews in our military. They've trained with their units and theyre going. Blink and look the other way." With Kuwait occupied and the Iraqis at his border, King Fahid did the practical thing.

We shipped out, but there was still the issue of classification. Normally the dog tags of Jewish servicemen are imprinted with the word "Jewish." But Defense, fearing that this would put Jewish soldiers at further risk should they be captured on Iraqi soil, substituted the classification, "Protestant B" on the tags. I didnt like the whole idea of classifying Jews as Protestant anything and so I decided to leave my dog tag alone. I figured if I were captured, it was in G-ds hands. Changing my tags was tantamount to denying my religion and I couldnt swallow that.

In September, l990 I went off to defend a country that I was prohibited from entering. The"Jewish" on my dog tag remained as clear and unmistakable as the American star on the hood of every Army truck.

A few days after my arrival, the Baptist chaplain approached me. I just got a secret message through channels, he said. Theres going to be a Jewish gathering. A holiday. Simkatoro or something like that. You want to go? Its at l800 hours at Dhahran Airbase.

"Simkatoro turned out to be the festival of Simchat Torah, a holiday that hadnt registered on my religious radar in eons. Services were held in absolute secrecy in a windowless room in a cinder-block building. The chaplain led a swift and simple service. We couldn't risk singing or dancing, but Rabbi Ben Romer had managed to smuggle in a bottle of Manischewitz. Normally, I can't stand the stuff, but that night, the wine tasted of Shabbat and family and Seders of long ago. My soul was warmed by the forbidden alcohol and by the memories swirling around me and by my fellow soldiers. We were strangers to one another in a land stranger than any of us had ever experienced, but for that brief hour, we were home.

Irony and pride twisted together inside me like barbed wire. Celebrating my Judaism that evening made me even prouder to be an American, thankful once more for the freedoms we have. I had only been in Saudi Arabia a week, but I already had a keen understanding of how restrictive its society was. Soon after, things began coming to a head. The next time I was able to do anything remotely Jewish was Chanukah. Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe it was G-ds hand that placed a Jewish Colonel in charge of our unit. Colonel Lawrence Schneider relayed messages of Jewish gatherings to us immediately. Had a non-Jew been in that position, the information would likely have taken a back seat to a more pressing issue. Like war. But it didnt.

When notice of the Chanukah party was decoded, we knew about it at once. The first thing we saw when we entered the tent was food, tons of it. Care packages from the States: cookies, latkes, sour cream and applesauce and cans and cans of gefilte fish. The wind was blowing dry across the tent, but inside there was an incredible feeling of celebration. As Rabbi Romer talked about the theme of Chanukah and the ragtag bunch of Maccabee soldiers fighting Jewrys oppressors thousands of years ago, it wasn't hard to make the connection to what lay ahead of us. There in the middle of the desert, inside an olive-green tent, we felt like we were the Maccabees. If we had to go down, we were going to go down fighting, as they did. We blessed the candles, acknowledging the King of the Universe who commanded us to kindle the Chanukah lights. We said the second prayer, praising G-d for the miracles he performed, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in those days and now. And we sang the third blessing, the Shehecheyanu, thanking G-d for keeping us alive and for enabling us to reach this season.

We knew war was imminent. All week we had received reports of mass destruction, projections of the chemical weapons that were likely to be unleashed. Intelligence estimates put the first rounds of casualties at 12,500 soldiers. I heard those numbers and thought, That's my whole division! I sat back in my chair, my gefilte fish cans at my feet. They were in the desert, about to go to war, singing songs of praise to G-d who had saved our ancestors in battle once before. The feeling of unity was as pervasive as our apprehension, as real as the sand that found its way into everything from our socks to our toothbrushes. I felt more Jewish there on that lonely Saudi plain, our tanks and guns at the ready, than I had ever felt back home in synagogue. That Chanukah in the desert solidified for me the urge to reconnect with my Judaism. I felt religion welling up inside me. Any soldier will tell you that there are no atheists in foxholes and I know that part of my feelings were tied to the looming war and my desire to get with G-d before the unknown descended in the clouds of battle.

It sounds corny, but as we downed the latkes and cookies and wiped the last of the apple sauce from our plates, everyone grew quiet, keenly aware of the link with history, thinking of what we were about to do and what had been done by soldiers like us so long ago.

The trooper beside me stared ahead at nothing in particular, absent-mindedly fingering his dog tag. Howd you classify? I asked, nodding to my tag. Silently, he withdrew the metal rectangle and its beaded chain from beneath his shirt and held it out for me to read. Like mine, his read, Jewish.

Somewhere in a military depot someplace, I am sure that there must be boxes and boxes of dog tags, still in their wrappers, all marked Protestant B.

"for glory and splendor"

Gershon Burd, Debra Darvick, Hadassah Magazine

© 1995-2024 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at [email protected] and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to Torah Weekly

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.