As far as I can tell, it was contemporary author Elizabeth Stone who first said that having a child is to forever “have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It’s since become something of a cliche, a quote that frequently pops up on parenting blogs and circulates in internet memes. But, as is often the case, the sentiment has attained cultural ubiquity precisely because anyone who has ever had a child knows in their bones that it is true.
The heart, the symbolic seat of our emotions, is literally the organ that keeps us alive. For such a vital organ, it is extremely delicate, which is probably why evolution has situated our hearts securely underneath our sternum and rib cage, some of our bodies’ toughest natural armor. So when we say that having a child is like having your heart walking around outside your body, we are acknowledging our children’s vulnerability, our own limited ability to protect them, and, at the same time, how vital their wellbeing is to our own.
That, of course, is why our instinct as parents is to shield our children from harm as best we can. But as soon as our children are out there, walking around in the world, there’s only so much we can do. So we provide them, as best we can, with the skills, abilities, and resources they will need to protect themselves and avoid getting seriously hurt.
But even that is not enough, because when they’re out in the world, our children will inevitably encounter other people who, whether by malice or ignorance, whether on purpose or by accident, will act in ways that put them in danger. It works the other way, too – our own children might act in ways that can hurt other people’s children. In essence, this is why human beings establish and maintain laws and social norms, so we can to the best of our ability protect our children, and indeed ourselves, from each other.
What is true of human parents and children is also true of our relationship with God. According to our tradition, God is avinu sh’ba-shamayim, our heavenly parent. If so, then God must see each and every one of us as we human parents see our own children. God sees each and every one of us as though we are God’s heart walking around outside of God’s body.
From this perspective, we might think of the whole Torah as God’s way of saying to each of us, “You see that person over there? Your sibling? Your neighbor? Your fellow countryman or the person who is a foreigner to you? The person closest to you or the person clear on the other side of the world? Each and every one of them is my heart, just walking around out there, vulnerable and exposed. To injure or endanger any one of them is to inflict harm on Me personally. Treat each other accordingly.”
Some of the Torah’s laws more clearly lend themselves to this interpretation than others. Take this week’s Torah portion for example, parashat Tetzaveh. Like last week’s parashah, Terumah, parashat Tetzaveh painstakingly details elements of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them during their journey through the wilderness. The bulk of parashat Tetzaveh describes the bigdei kehunah, the priestly garments, and in particular the special outfit that Aaron, the High Priest, must wear when he is officiating in the mishkan.
To be sure, the colorful and bejeweled High Priest’s uniform as described in our parashah must have been stunning. But except for those of us who are fans of high fashion, the attention the Torah pays to the priest’s clothes is more than a little baffling. Our tradition insists that nothing, not even one letter, of the Torah is purposeless; everything in the Torah is there for a reason. So what could possibly be the reason for all this detail about the priestly garments?
Of all the bigdei kehunah, the Torah focuses most of its attention on the ephod, which was kind of like an apron, and the hoshen, sometimes translated as a breastpiece, a large ornate piece of jewelry that was situated atop the High Priest’s chest. So if we are to understand why the Torah gives so much precious scriptural real estate to the priestly garments, the answer is probably to be found in the ephod and the hoshen.
The hoshen had a particular ritual function: it carried sacred objects called urim and tumim. What exactly these were is a matter of debate, but most commentators believe they were a special tool used to discern God’s judgment about particularly difficult issues – matters of death and life, war and peace.
Because it bore the urim and tumim, the more proper name for the hoshen was the hoshen ha-mishpat, the breastpiece of judgment. Perhaps it is for this reason that the hoshen was set with twelve precious stones, mounted in four rows, framed in gold; the names of the tribes of Israel etched into each stone. As we learn in Exodus chapter 28 verse 29, “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastpiece of judgment over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Infinite at all times.”
Commentators debate the meaning of the phrase “for remembrance before the Infinite at all times.” For whom are the names of the Israelite tribes on the hoshen, which Aaron is to wear over his heart, meant to serve as a reminder? Maybe for God; but I think more likely for the High Priest himself. Since only he was permitted to wear and use the hoshen ha-mishpat, for all sakes and purposes the High Priest bore sole responsibility for decisions about the vital issues that were adjudicated by the urim and tumim; he was the only one who could be sure he was using the urim and tumim correctly, the only one who could be sure he understood their oracle properly, the only one who knew whether we was accurately reporting God’s judgment to the people. In any case, having the names of the children of Israel upon the High Priest’s heart would be a reminder that the people who will be impacted by the hoshen’s pronouncements are in fact God’s children, who are like God’s heart walking around outside of God’s body. Proceed, therefore, with caution and care.
Similarly, the ephod was adorned with shoulder pieces made of precious stones engraved with the names of the children of Israel, six names on each stone. According to the Torah, these stones, like the stones of the hoshen, were borne by the High Priest “for remembrance of the children of Israel.” For whom are the names of the tribes on the shoulder pieces meant to serve as a reminder? Again, maybe for God; but I think more likely for the High Priest himself, reminding him that the High Priest’s job is to bear responsibility for the welfare of God’s children.
In his collection of sermons called Be’er Mayim Chaim, the hasidic master Chaim Tyrer of Tchernovitz, who lived from 1760-1816 in what is now Ukraine, emphasizes that the High Priest carried the names of the tribes of Israel specifically on his shoulders for this reason:
So that the High Priest himself would remember to protect the children of Israel, and carry them like a father who carries his child on his shoulders (כאב הנושא את בנו על כתפיו) to save him from any dangerous obstacle out of concern that his child might trip over a stone. So too the High Priest would remember to protect the children of Israel from all afflictions and plague…with all his might and merit, and by always seeking mercy for them, sweetening whatever fate might befall them, even protecting them from harm.Be’er Mayim Chaim, Parashat Tetzaveh
As a father who is frequently asked for “uppies,” as my kids call them, I absolutely adore and fully identify with this interpretation. Like any leader, the High Priest might be inclined to see the people he serves as an anonymous crowd that he might care about less than he would his own children. As a result, he might be more cavalier with their welfare than he would be if it were his own children at stake. Placing the names of the children of Israel on his shoulders reminds the High Priest to regard the people he serves as precious and vulnerable children. They are, of course, God’s children, but the High Priest’s job is to carry them gently and protect them steadfastly as though they were his own.
Now, that may be all well and good for the High Priest, but what does it have to do with us? We haven’t even had a functioning priesthood in nearly two-thousand years, much less a High Priest. Why should we care about the priestly garments?
Because the priesthood is in fact not limited to Aaron and his descendants. Before the revelation at Sinai, God instructs, “atem tihiyu li mamlekhet kohanim, you shall be unto me a nation of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Just as Aaron and his descendants care for the welfare of the Israelites as their own precious and vulnerable children, the rest of us are similarly called upon to care for all of God’s children. Every single human being is God’s child. And so God reminds us, whether they are like us or foreign to us, close by or far away, we should think of each and every human being as God’s heart, placed in our care. We had better handle each other with caution.
This principle has many applications, but it’s been particularly on my mind lately. Last month, one of the first official acts our new governor took upon assuming office was to lift the requirement for faculty, staff, and students to wear masks at all times inside of schools. “A parent should have the right to make their own health decisions for their own child,” he said.
Let’s be perfectly clear: the end of the school mask mandate while a deadly disease is still ravaging our community may be many things, but it is not about the right of parents to make health decisions for their own children. Since wearing a mask is both a way we keep ourselves from getting sick and a way we make sure we don’t inadvertently get others sick, enabling parents to send their own kids to school maskless – regardless of vaccination status, infection rates, or the percentage of the population that is vaccinated – means that one parent’s decision for their own child can and likely will undermine another parent’s decision for theirs. This executive order, like those now being issued all over the country, empowers and encourages those who embrace a cavalier, or at least careless, attitude toward the health and wellbeing of others, including other people’s children.
This, of course, is not just about our new governor. The ongoing failure to care for one another and do what is necessary to end this godforsaken pandemic is not just about our leaders. It’s on us. Our governor, along with officials around the country, aren’t taking actions like this because they’ve been advised by medical experts that it’s good for our health and welfare. They’re doing it because they’ve determined it’s good politics. So, yes, shame on our governor and his ilk who care more about winning elections than caring for our wellbeing. But also, and more importantly, shame on us.
Too many of us – a number that appears to be growing by the day, as evidenced by the protests against safety measures that are spreading like wildfire here and abroad with the giddy encouragement of cynical and callous politicians and media personalities – have come to think about all of the health and safety measures with which we have become so familiar over these past two years primarily as methods to protect ourselves, and less as ways to protect others.
For most of us, I don’t believe this is malicious or intentional. Maybe it’s cultural – as Americans, we have always tended to see things through the lens of individual rights, rather than communal responsibilities; we don’t like the government telling us what to do. Maybe we’re all just sick and tired – of having to wear these uncomfortable and annoying masks all the time, of having to constantly worry about our and others’ health and safety, of enduring all the disruptions and devastations of this seemingly endless pandemic; I know I am. Maybe it’s just human nature.
But whatever the reason, it appears that growing numbers of us have given up on caring how our personal choices might harm or endanger others. Instead, we increasingly seem to care mostly about what makes us personally comfortable or uncomfortable, what risks we are or aren’t willing to bear for ourselves personally.
Unfortunately, that’s not how pandemics work. The decisions each of us make about these precautions don’t just impact us. They impact our neighbors, those close by and far away, even people on the other side of the world. They affect not only our children, but also others’ children. Indeed, the very definition of the Greek conjunction pandemic is a phenomenon that encompases all people.
This pandemic in particular has repeatedly shown us how our decisions, our actions, affect all God’s children. And yet, because of our selfishness and indifference, we continue to ignore that lesson over and over again. So here we are, stuck for nearly two years in this seemingly endless cycle of anxiety, illness, and so much death.
The only way we will ever make it out is if we heed what our parashah makes clear: we must cease being so careless about and cavalier with the wellbeing of God’s children. We, like the ancient High Priest, are to perpetually bear in mind that each and every person is God’s child. Indeed, each and every person is God’s own heart, walking about exposed in the world. We are called upon to see this in one another, everywhere and at all times, caring for one another as if our dearest lives were beating, vulnerably, in our hands.