PARSHAT TETZAVEH

TIFERET (BEAUTY AND MORE)

“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for honor and beauty.”  (Exodus 28:2)

            This portion goes into detail regarding the sacred clothing which the Israelites must make for Aaron and his sons, who will serve as priests.  Aaron, the high priest, has eight pieces of clothing including the breastplate with twelve precious jewels, symbolizing the twelve tribes.  His sons have four pieces of sacred clothing.  The purpose of this clothing is so they will display kavod (honor) and tiferet (beauty, written as tifaret for grammatical reasons.)

            The word tiferet means beauty.  But in kabbalah, the great tradition of Jewish mysticism, it has a deeper meaning.  It is one of the ten Sefirot, the manifestations of God in the universe which appeared when God (or better Ein Sof) emanated the universe.  As we describe the Tiferet among the Sefirot, we will capitalize it since it is a manifestation of God.  It appears in the very middle of every diagram of the Sefirot, often being the balance point of the emotional manifestations of God.

            One way to understand the dynamics of the Sefirot is to look briefly at the writings of the nineteenth century philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831).  Although not Jewish, there is speculation whether Hegel studied kabbalah, and he mentions the Sefirot in some of his writings.  Hegel’s key insight is how ideas are dynamic in history through what he called the dialectic.  Hegel’s dialectic is a three-part process.  First, there is the thesis, an idea that has become accepted in history.  This is challenged by an antithesis, another idea which seeks to undermine the thesis.  Finally, there is resolution through the synthesis, which creates a new idea which balances out the thesis and antithesis.  An example I use in my class is – the acceptance of slavery is the thesis, the abolitionist movement and books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin are the antithesis, and Emancipation Proclamation creates the synthesis.

            Let’s apply Hegel’s dialectic to some of the Sefirot.  On the right side is Hesed which means kindness.  This is the thesis.  It symbolizes opening one’s hand and giving everything away.   It is symbolized by the patriarch Abraham, who even when incapacitated sat by the door of his tent to feed wayfarers.  Generosity is a virtue, but too much generosity is unhealthy.  We cannot give everything away.

            On the left side is Gevurah, meaning heroism but which I like to translate as restraint.  This is the antithesis.  It protects the self and prevents giving everything away.  It is symbolized by the patriarch Isaac, who lived a more restrained and limited life.  For example, he never left the Promised Land.  So, we have a clash of two Sefirot.  Too much Hesed and we give everything away, showing too much generosity.  Imagine a parent giving a child everything they want.  The child will never learn self-sufficiency.  Too much Gevurah and we give nothing away, hoarding everything for ourselves.  Imagine a parent never giving a child anything, always making the child fend for themselves.  The child will constantly struggle.

            In the middle we have Tiferet, translated as beauty.  This is the synthesis.  It can also mean balance.  It is symbolized by the patriarch Jacob, who was able to find a balance between generosity and restraint.  This is parents giving their child enough to begin making their way in the world, but not too much so that the child learns to fend for themselves.   It is the ideal middle ground.

            Tiferet also combined with five other Sefirot, all but the last – Hesed, Gevurah, Netzach, Hod, and Yesod.  Together these back up the masculine aspects of God.  These six together are often called Tiferet.  They long for the last of the Sefirot, the feminine aspects of God, Malkhut or Shekhinah.  According to Kabbalah, Tiferet and Shekhinah, the masculine and the feminine aspects of God have been separated.  Human actions can reunite the masculine and feminine aspects of God.  In fact, some Jews say a prayer before performing certain mitzvot, that their actions reunite Tiferet and Shekhinah.  The notion that human action can have divine consequences is known as theurgy, and it is a powerful kabbalistic teaching.

            Tiferet is more than just beauty.  It symbolizes finding the balance between generosity and restraint.  And it is the masculine aspects of reality, longing to be reunited with the feminine.