Tetzaveh 5764 — God is a Verb

February 3, 2004

 The Temple was not a place that had “casual Friday’s.” This week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, tells us of all the finery the High Priest, the Cohen Gadol, would wear while going about his official duties. We learn the details of the breastplate, the ephod, the robe, the embroidered coat, the mitre, and the girdle. We are also told that to be a Cohen is hereditary, and furthermore, we are told that the garments that are for Aaron shall be for his sons after him. In chapter 29 verse 30 it says, regarding a son who has taken over from Aaron: “He will wear them for seven days. Hacohen, the priest, in his place from his sons.”

Rashi is great at spotting grammatical difficulties. So when he analyzed this sentence, he noticed that there does not appear to be a verb in the sentence. Every sentence needs a verb, so Rashi comes to the somewhat curious conclusion that “Cohen is a verb.” The word we normally translate as priest, Rashi says is actually not a noun, but a verb. So, according to Rashi, the proper translation of this phrase is “the one who Cohens in his place,” or the one who “priests” in his place, or perhaps a little more elegantly, the one who serves in his place.

In Hebrew there is often a connection between nouns and verbs; they are often variations on the same root. In Hebrew as in English, we converse conversations and argue arguments.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this concept is reflected in one of my favorite book titles, a book by Rabbi David Cooper: “God is a Verb.” The implication being we really should NOT speak of God as a noun, as an object, but rather we should speak of “Godding.” A concept worth a lot of consideration, but for another time. Today I’d like to go back to exploring the implications of Rashi’s statement that Cohen is a verb.

The implication of Cohen being a verb is that it’s not who your parents are, or what you’ve accomplished, that determines “who you are;” rather, it’s what you DO. Doctors doctor. Lawyers lawyer. If you’re not practicing law, are you really a lawyer? Or are you a “latent lawyer,” someone who could lawyer, but doesn’t?

When we think of our lives, we often think of our accomplishments in the past tense. I have a degree from XYZ university; I started a program to do “x.”

The message from this weeks’ parsha is that who we are is a verb, not a noun; and what’s more, the verb is in the present tense. It’s not what we’ve done in the past, it’s not where we went to school, and it’s not who we are related to that determines “who we are.” It’s what we do.

I’ve thought about this relating to my work. Instead of saying I’m a rabbi, I would say “I rabbi.” There are many different aspects of what it means “to rabbi.” It includes teaching, preaching, counseling and leading.

This idea extends way beyond our professional lives: it also includes the descriptions we apply to ourselves in our personal lives. Instead of thinking of yourself as so and so’s husband, or so and so’s wife, what would it mean to say “I husband,” or “I wife?” What are some of the things that go into this activity of “spousing?”

“Spousing” means doing a lot of things—it is a very active role. It means caring, loving, sharing, nurturing, growing. It means not just having shared a ceremony in the past, but sharing a life in the present.

The question of who is a parent is one that society has had to face in recent years as all sorts of new ways of having children have become possible. There is no longer necessarily any connection between the source of the genetic material, the womb a fetus matures in, and the people who raise the child. A sperm donor may be the source of genetic material, but Rashi might suggest he is not a father because he does not engage in the activity of “fathering.” To be a father means to be a verb—to be engaged in “fathering.” To teach, to love, to play, to hug, to discipline, to support.

This idea—to think of yourself as a verb—can inspire us to give more thought to some of the many roles we each play in life, and to remind us that it’s not enough, for example, to say “I’m a parent” because of something you did in the past—but rather we need to think about the things we do today. And Rashi’s comment—that Cohen is a verb—applies to all of us. The Torah tells us we are to be a nation of Cohanim—a nation of those who serve God and work to make the world a better place. May we all be strengthened in our efforts to fill this role, and all of our other roles. Amen.

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