Whose names do we carry on our shoulders and bear in our hearts?
My sartorial interests have always been minimal. Aware of their environmental cost, I shop for new clothes as rarely as possible. If I do have to visit a shopping centre like Brent Cross, the less time I have there, the more likely I am to buy what I need.
But the High Priest’s garments, described in this week’s Torah reading, fascinate me. The very names of the precious stones sewn onto them seem to glow in the text: sappir veyahalom, sapphire and diamond, shevo ve’achlamah, agate and amethyst.
Mystics see them as metaphors for the radiance of the soul. But in our sore times, I’m interested in something more down to earth. Two stones are carved with the names of the tribes of Israel, six names on each, and attached to the high priest’s ephod so that ‘he wears them on his shoulders as a memorial before God.’
Today there is no temple, no sacrificial service and no high priest. Instead, we each come before God carrying the names, hopes, anguish and aspirations of everyone we care about, before God.
My first meeting here in Israel was with my colleague Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, responsible for supporting the Jewish communities of Ukraine. This Shabbat, 24 February, brings the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion. She writes:
‘Two years have passed but the war still remains. These days, every Shabbat service in Ukraine begins with the prayer for peace in Israel and ends with the prayer for Ukraine.’
Last year, I joined Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski at the Ukrainian Cathedral in London. He carries on his shoulders the anguish of hundreds of thousands of his people, exiled to Britain or fighting and struggling at home. There’s no end in sight to the war. I send him a big hug of solidarity from Jerusalem.
As well as the stones on his shoulders, the high priest wore over his heart four rows of jewels, three in each row, carved with the individual name of one of Israel’s twelve tribes. We, being no formal high priests, carry them not on, but in, our hearts.
I don’t know whom you carry in your heart: someone you love who’s in danger, a hostage, a friend whose hand you want to hold but they’re on the other side of some border, at the other end of the world. What I do know is that we all carry names in our hearts ‘as a memorial before God’: people we love, for whom we hope and pray. I think of Pasternak’s poem:
‘In me are people without names…
I am conquered by them all, and this is my only victory.’
May the God of life embrace them all.
The high priest wears one more piece of clothing bearing a name, God’s name carved on a gold band worn round his head. It was his special tefillin, the small leather boxes with scrolls bearing the commandment to love God, which we place daily next to our heart and on our forehead.
The other morning, I tentatively mentioned to a friend that his tefillin were askew; instead of at the centre they were way off to one side of his forehead. ‘No,’ he wittily replied, ‘My tefillin are in the right place. It’s my head which is facing the wrong way.’ Since then, I keep asking myself which way my thoughts are facing.
The Torah explains that the high priest wears his special garments ‘to make him holy to serve me.’
So may we, each our own high priest, be granted to stand with our head and thoughts facing the God of all life, our hearts filled with love to carry the names of the people who need our embrace, and our shoulders strong to share their burdens, in these cruel, challenging times.