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Power and the Glory?

Years ago I learned that the reason there are legal doublets (“breaking and entering,” “give and grant,” “keep and maintain,” etc.) is as a result of William the Conqueror (or as we called him in my childhood home, “Bill the Bastard”) invading England in 1066. His government wanted the law to apply both Natives and Normans alike – and so the legal doublet was born, one word in French and one in Old English, just to make sure everyone was covered. Though once the habit was formed, plenty such phrases can be found in just French (“Aid and abet”) or English (“Have and hold”), which means that even if we do not need to in order to cover our legal bases, people still like throwing in an extra word, perhaps because it makes us appear super-duper smart.

While certainly some legal doublets derived this way, we know that 1066 was not the starting line for linguistic doublets. The use of doublets is clearly much older, because similar word phrases were very common in both Homer and Virgil; meter, rhyme and fullness of meaning all contribute to the roundness of a phrase.

Even older than doublets are merisms – words which are paired to bring opposite examples together into a whole: “I searched high and low” is a modern example. Merisms offer up two contrasting words: think of Torah phrases, “it was evening and it was morning,” and, “heaven and earth.” A merism offers a range or a sum, encapsulating a meaning through polarity instead of through similarity.

So when I came across a biblical verse explaining the garments worn by the priests, I got to wondering what a certain doublet means. The common translation of this verse is:

Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for honor and adornment.” (Ex. 28:2)

The King James translation of this verse is even more colorful:

“And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty.”

And it made me wonder. What do these words actually mean?

The word for “honor/glory” (kavod) is easy enough. It is used first to describe the reaction of Laban’s sons to Jacob’s successes:

“Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this kavod.” Jacob has accreted wealth and reputation.

Similarly, in its second use, Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, wants his father to know of his status, so he commands his brothers:

“And you must tell my father everything about my kavod in Egypt.”

From there until the priestly garments are commanded, the word kavod refers only to the kavod of G-d as he leads the people. The word can cause fear, as with the rebuke: “In the morning you shall behold the kavod of the LORD, because He has heard your grumblings against the LORD.” Or it can merely refer to great power, as in “Now the kavod of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.”

But the meaning is consistent enough across all these meanings: kavod is the perception of power, of grandeur. The King James translation of kavod to mean “glory” seems pretty spot-on. The clothes of the priest are to somehow reflect G-d’s own kavod, to invest that presence and power into the wearers of the priestly garments.

If this is the case, then what is the purpose of this second word, translated as “adornment”? The root word in Hebrew is pa-er. But the first use of pa-er has nothing to do with “adornment” at all!

Egypt has been plagued with frogs, and Pharaoh begs Moses to get rid of them. Moses replies to Pharaoh,

“You may have this pa-er over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile?”

What does this mean? Moses offers to give Pharaoh authority by deciding what day or hour the frogs should be removed? There is certainly an element of snark in Moses’ offer – try to play the scene out in your head, and you’ll see how the offer could not have been made without at least a little chutzpah.

But while Moses may have been baiting Pharoah, the use of the word remains, because Moses is doing something very specific: he is offering to act as the go-between between Pharoah and G-d, relaying communications between them, and in so doing, reducing Moses’ own role in the negotiations. In other words, this word pa-er seems to refer not to beauty or adornment, but to service.

If so, then the original phrase is not a legal doublet, or a rhetorical one. Instead, it is, like “heaven and earth,” a merism. The kavod or glory of G-d is one purpose of the garments. But the second purpose is an opposite one: the garments exist to allow the priest to serve man and G-d, to act not in his own interest, but as a facilitator to communication and the relationship between man and His Creator.

In this way, the priestly garments seem analogous to the official uniform of any high office: the wearer of the uniform represents the glory of his institution or master, but also, and at the same time, a devoted servant sworn to act in the interest of that master instead of seeking his own self-aggrandizement. This actually fits quite well for the described tasks and responsibilities of the priests in G-d’s house.

Understanding the original “glory and adornment” as a merism instead of a complementary doublet tells us much more about the dual nature of a priest, whose garments help him remember that he has to represent G-d, but while still serving man.

If this is correct, then it also allows us to reconsider some other verses in the Torah. Here is a big one:

He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:19)

Is thus more properly understood as:

He will set you, in praise and reputation and service, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:19)

Which really changes the meaning of the text. Instead of being aloof above the nations secure in our fame and glory, we are to act as G-d’s own intermediaries to the world, involved and invested in mankind as part of our service to G-d.

[an @iwe, @blessedblacksmith and @kidcoder work]

P.S. Besides these examples (including more discussion of the priestly garments), there is only one other case of the word pa-er in the Torah, and it is a curious one:

When you beat out your olives, do not pa-er them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deut. 24:20)

Making sense of this is not easy. This is the best I came up with: G-d wants to help the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, as the Torah says,

The Lord your G-d … upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. (Deut. 10:17)

So for these protected classes of people, G-d does not want us to get in the middle of G-d’s direct beneficence. Instead of serving as a go-between to the end, in this case we leave the olives on the tree for the people to help themselves. It is G-d who wishes to feed them, and we are to stand aside, to not be in the middle of that merciful act by G-d.

In other words, pa-er means to serve others but, as with Pharaoh, that service reduces the supplicant. But the stranger, orphan and widow are already reduced, and G-d wants them to rise up, to take more control of their own futures. He wants to empower them with olives (described here, symbolizing the light of knowledge in dark days). By stepping back by fully working over the tree, we are making it possible for the poor to harvest the olives themselves, to possess self-respect and agency in the process. Which means we refrain from fully acting as the go-between, the pa-er between the olive and the recipients.

Comments are welcome!

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