Parashat Tetzaveh – Dressing for the job
In this week’s portion we continue with the theme that defines most of the Book of Exodus: the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was used by the Israelites throughout their years of wandering in the wilderness, and all of the “holy implements” that were used within. Included among these “implements” were the Kohanim, the priests who performed the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his sons were selected to serve in this important and hereditary office of religious leadership.
Great detail is given about the elaborate ritual garments of the High Priest, who was to be regally resplendent in gold and precious stones. Like all the other elements of the Mishkan, the priestly garments were to be made of the finest materials, to be both functional and beautiful. The costume of the High Priest is to be symbolic of his responsibility to serve on behalf of the people. The text makes it clear that there is purpose for all of this ornamentation: “Make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for dignity and splendor” (Exodus 28:2).
“Clothes make the man,” the old saying goes. Clothes certainly do seem to impress us human beings. Nothing makes a greater first impression than how one is dressed. It’s quite remarkable, really. We try to sum up a person’s entire character simply by how they are dressed. Jobs have been won and lost, relationships continued or ended, all based on the clothes we wear. The fashion industry certainly understands this important detail of human nature. So do schools and the military. The whole point of putting people into uniform is to minimize their differences; to make individualization impossible and to reduce independence. You are what you wear. When we dress the same as others, it is because we don’t want to be seen as different. And when we do want to stand out, we do so through the clothes that we wear.
The Torah certainly understands this as well. This week’s parashah devotes more than forty verses, an unusually high number for any single topic, to the subject of the Bigdei Kodesh, the holy clothing or ritual garments for the high priests. So what is so important about the garments of the High Priest? Does not Judaism usually focus on inner qualities, frowning on such an outward show of materialism? How can garments be holy? How can they alone bring dignity and splendor?
It seems that Torah is indeed telling us that clothes do make the man, or at least the role in which the man is serving. Aaron, already well respected and loved among the people, is to be dressed as befits a Kohen Gadol — a High Priest. When he engages in work that is holy, he is to be suitably dressed in holy garments; clothes that add dignity and splendor to the work. This is the notion of Hiddur Mitzvah — the enhancement of a Mitzvah (commandment) through the adornment of the act. This is why we say Kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the Mitzvah, but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) notes, however, that the commandment to dress the High Priest in garments for glory and splendor is not only to enhance the status of the priest himself, but also to enhance the glory of God. He notes that in the mystical teachings, dignity (kavod) and splendor (tiferet) are Sefirot, emanations of the Divine. Through these special garments worn by the Priest, God’s presence among the people is further demonstrated. This teaching suggests that the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out in the priest and worn on the outside with his clothing.
When dressed in his priestly vestments, the High Priest is reminded of his special role and the sanctity of his calling. It is a symbol, a reminder. But holy clothes are really only holy when they cover a holy person. In this regard, one does not need to be a priest. We all have the potential for such holiness. We just need to find a way to allow our own holiness to be worn on the outside.