Humility and Pride: The Vestments of the Kohen Gadol
Rabbi Chaim Navon
Midreshet Lindenbaum Faculty
Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is the only day on which the Kohen Gadol, the holiest of men, may enter the Temple’s Holy of Holies, the holiest of earthly places.
The Torah describes the attire of the Kohen Gadol on this holy day: “He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with the linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired” [Lev. 16:4].
This entire set of garments was called by our Sages “bigdei lavan” (the garments of white), and is entirely different from the garments usually worn by the Kohen Gadol all year round, which were called “bigdei zahav” (garments of gold). The latter were extravagant pieces of clothing interwoven with threads of gold and precious stones.
The Torah goes to great lengths to describe these magnificent items of clothing, which gave the Kohen Gadol his dazzling appearance [Ex. 28]. Why is it that on the holiest day of the year the Kohen Gadol takes off his glorious garments of gold and puts on simple robes of white? Why does he not dress himself in ornate garb at this peak moment?
Throughout the year the Kohen Gadol must dress himself in garments that outwardly reflect dignity and glamour, but which also have an inward impact affecting the Kohen Gadol’s sense of self. It is important that the Kohen Gadol feel that his position is a lofty one with unique obligations, and that he be aware of the great power and capabilities he possesses. If the Kohen Gadol remains oblivious to his status and value, he might become unmindful of the great task bestowed upon him.
All this is true throughout year — except for Yom Kippur. On this day, when the Kohen Gadol is required to enter the Holy of Holies and stand before his Creator, a whole different mindset is required of him. On this day he removes the garments of gold and puts on garments of white. When a person stands before God, one is required to do so with utter humility, simplicity and modesty. All of one’s ornaments, embellishments and sense of self- importance dissipate when one stands before God.
Yet, if the Kohen Gadol were to be constantly reminded of this notion all year round, he would be paralyzed by it and unable to act. In contrast, on Yom Kippur, it is this humility that God desires most. God does not seek false humility or insincere modesty, but rather a true recognition of man’s insignificance when standing before his Creator.
The very moment when one stands before his Creator is one of great epiphany, in which one has a clear recognition of God’s omnipotence vis-à-vis man’s inherent weakness. Notwithstanding this, we have no desire to extend this feeling of unworthiness to the other days of the year. On regular days, it is best that we feel strong, competent and capable, and do our best to utilize these feelings in the best possible way.
The sense of humility and modesty that exists when a person meets his Creator also ensures that feelings such as competence and power — which should prevail all year round — are channeled towards a greater and nobler purpose, rather than towards empty arrogance. The garments of white worn on Yom Kippur give us the right to wear the garments of gold during the other days of the year.