Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Tetzaveh is the second in a series of Torah portions dealing with the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. Whereas the previous parsha, Terumah, dealt mostly with the structure of the house that Hashem commanded His nation to build for Him, this week’s parsha focuses mainly on the attire worn by the priests performing the service in the Mishkan.
This description climaxes with the eight vestments worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) when he came to perform the service. He wore a special light-blue jacket adorned with bells that rang as he walked. A golden breastplate with twelve precious stones, upon which the names of the tribes of Israel are inscribed, covered the Kohen Gadol’s heart. His forehead was adorned with a golden band, called a “Tzitz”.
Kohanim were prohibited from performing the service unless they were wearing their priestly vestments, and those who disobeyed were severely punished. How can we explain this rather ostentatious display? Wouldn’t it have been better to have asked the kohanim – particularly the Kohen Gadol – to appear in simpler garments, just like the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, when he entered the Holy of Holies? The Torah explains the purpose of the priestly vestments:
“You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for beauty and glory.” (Shemot / Exodus 28:2)
In other words, their dress code was supposed to give them a dignified and stately appearance. Ramban (Nachmanides), in his commentary on this verse, augments and adds detail to this trend to promote beauty and glory:
“He should look splendid and dignified through splendid and dignified garments… for these are the robes of royalty, the likes of which were worn by kings at the time of the Torah… and even today, the turban is associated with the greatest kings and ministers…”.
This, however, is precisely our question: why must the kohanim dress like kings? After all, they were not kings; they performed the service. Why should they wear clothes that weren’t theirs?
Some of our sages claimed that through one’s garments, a person is more likely to sense how lofty his status is, and be aware of the mission he was intended for. Obviously, putting a ring in a pig’s nose won’t make it human, but if someone wishes to etch the significance of his actions into his consciousness, one of the tools that could prove useful would be the person’s attire. This is why career counselors advise job seekers to wear clothing that suits the position. A person’s external appearance and the first impression that person creates can determine the outcome of the encounter.
Clothing can even leave an impact on its wearer. I remember one occasion during my childhood, when I was sick and stayed at home. I wanted to take off my school clothes and put on the “clothes that sick people wear” (or, in other words, pajamas). The first indication that I was no longer sick was wearing the clothes I used to wear every day. This is how I made myself feel like a healthy person.
We all know how we regard officers in uniform, and how this attitude changes when the same person wears civilian attire. The Torah demands that the kohanim be completely serious with their work, and this sense of gravity will inevitably come across in their external appearance as well. The same demands are made of civil servants in many places in the world. They need to appear in a way that dignifies both themselves and their customers.
However, an exaggerated emphasis on external appearance introduces certain dangers, as well. When we are preoccupied with the way we dress, we are liable to forget our true self, our soul. Could it be that occasionally we want to do something to impress others, or ourselves, even if it isn’t who we really are? We might manage to impress everyone, but in doing so, we might forget who we truly are.
Our parsha teaches us the importance and the benefit of clothes “for glory and for beauty” while simultaneously paying attention to our soul, which wishes to preserve its status as the focus of life. If we can harness the “glory and beauty” to nurture our souls, we will be able to use both properly, and merit to have the Shechina (Divine Presence) dwell among us.