Travel in your mind to the top of our atmosphere, where Earth’s envelope of life-giving oxygen and nitrogen blends into the cold vacuum of space. Looking down from that heady height, as astronauts have done since 1961, the Earth below seems borderless and pastoral, gently still except for flashes of lightning and polar aurorae dancing across the globe.
This uplifted perspective on our planet – whole, shimmering, borderless, peaceful, alive – launched not only the environmental movement but also a spiritual shift that continues to reverberate through society. Sometimes seeing is believing: seeing all humanity, all history and endeavor amidst diversity and conflict, fit onto a tiny blue speck against the infinitely vast darkness of space, cannot help but shift our sense of ourselves, each other, and the planet we inhabit.
Often we forget, and that’s why this journey of consciousness and perspective – this shift in how we see ourselves, each other and all humanity – is such an important purpose of spiritual life. Perspective shift is about seeing differently, not only seeing different things but also bringing different eyes to what we see. To live spiritually is to heed the ancient call to keep seeing different.
This week’s Torah portion (Tetzaveh) came long before the atmospheric vision of space travel, but the invitation to perspective shift is there for all to see. In ancient days, the Israelite priesthood donned a ceremonial headdress befitting the role. Of that headdress, Torah records: “You will make [for it] a plate of pure gold and engrave on it [the words]: ‘Holy to God’” (Ex. 28:36).
Whom did these awesome words describe? To ask that question is also to ask who the intended audience was for those words, and with what eyes the intended audience would see them.
The answer of the Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir), living in 12th-century France, was that the headband reminded God that our ancestors were “Holy to God,” so God would favorably receive the priest’s offerings in their merit. A second answer emerged from Naftali Tzvi Yehudah (1817-1893, Poland), who taught that the headband was to remind the priest that he was “Holy to God,” evoking in himself an awed quality of mind and heart so he could best serve the people. Tradition’s other answers are similar – either the headband cued God for remembrance, or it cued the priest for inspiration and self-correction. Variations aside, all of these answers imagine that the headband’s words “Holy to God” describe the priest wearing it, and that God and/or the priest needed the visual reminder to see and be better.
But what about the people? Surely the people also saw the headband on the priest’s head. Did the headband serve the people? Might the headband’s real purpose be to remind the people not that the priest was “Holy to God,” but that they – the people – were to be “Holy to God”? Indeed, as Moses later told the people, “You are a people holy to God” (Deut. 7:6) – the same words as the priestly headband. Maybe the priest’s headband was for the people to see as a reminder of who they – today, all of us – are supposed to be.
This perspective shift is critical. Often in spiritual life, we naturally default to the notion that clergy, teachers and other authority figures are holier and higher. A recurrent bit of cynical dark humor is that congregations pay rabbis to pray for them, to embody and reflect a quality of spirituality either inconvenient or inaccessible for everyone else. The priestly headband, however, reminds that what’s “Holy to God” is the collective. It reminds that sometimes we can’t see who we’re called to be except in the mirrored projection of a higher vision that we need others to help us see. It reminds that sometimes we forget even that our vision is limited – we can’t see that we can’t see – so we need a sight to recalibrate our vision.
That’s the astronaut’s vision of the Earth, and that’s the public’s vision of the priestly headband. When we lift our sights above particulars of routine and behold the vista of the whole, we can fulfill the prophetic vision of an Earth renewed, a people “Holy to God” worthy of those words still emblazoned on our Torah.
You, us, all of us together – we are what Jewish tradition calls “Holy to God.” Let that vision appear before our eyes when we see each other. Let us remind each other whom we are called to be – then help each other to act accordingly.
Originally published at Rabbis Without Borders / My Jewish Learning.