The Clothes Make Much More Than the Man

Posted on February 11, 2022 by Jay Lavroff

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, meaning “you shall further instruct.” The further instruction is a reference to last week’s portion, Terumah, in which God laid out highly specific directions for the building of the Mishkan to Moses. Having now designed a sanctuary so that God may dwell among the people of Israel, it is time to give similarly detailed rules for those who will tend to the Tabernacle.

The focus of Tetzaveh is on the priests, and particularly the high priest, the Cohen Gadol. The people who will hold these important offices are Aaron and his sons. For once, Moses gets a break from being the center of attention. In fact, this is the only Torah portion from the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy that does not contain the name “Moses.”

The portion opens with instructions about the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, which will burn perpetually in the Mishkan and which today illuminates every synagogue in the world. The text goes on to command that Aaron and his sons be brought forward to serve God as priests, and that sacred vestments be made “for dignity and adornment” and “so they may be priests to Me.” The vestments are ornate, consisting of a breast piece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash, all made of the best and most valuable materials. Pure gold. Fine linen. Precious stones. No fashion designer could envision or describe a more intricate and lavish set of work clothes than that which God commands Aaron and his sons will wear.

On the one hand, requiring all of these fancy accoutrements may seen logical. After, all, the Mishkan is God’s house. The priests are the staff in that house, performing the many Mitzvot which God has handed down, including the sacrifices that are as detailed as the building of the Mishkan and the clothing of the priests. Shouldn’t the priests be dressed in a manner that is worthy of such sacred and important work? Shouldn’t their raiment reflect the lofty position they occupy as God’s servants? Didn’t the staff at Downton Abbey wear black tie, tails, and red coachmen’s uniforms decorated with gold braid?

And yet, aren’t we, as Jews, taught to act with humility, including the way we dress? On Yom Kippur, must we not eschew the wearing of our best leather shoes, causing some to instead come to temple wearing old-school canvas Converse All-Stars? Rabbi Gluck loves the fable about the rabbi who is invited to a fancy banquet at a relative’s house, but when he arrives in his humble daily outfit, he is turned away. When he returns in a fine suit he is admitted and embraced. The rabbi then proceeds to pour the food he is served into his shirt and down his pants. When his incredulous host asks for the reason behind this bizarre behavior, the rabbi responds that obviously it is not he, but his clothing, that was intended to be the guest, and so why shouldn’t his clothing enjoy the feast. My Jewish education included as one explanation of why we cover our heads being that when we are viewed from above—that is, in the eyes of heaven– there is no way to distinguish between rich and poor. And flashy garments can be the source of terrible trouble. Think about the many colored coat that Jacob gave to Joseph, to the chagrin of his brothers.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote that “Judaism is a religion of inwardness, not appearances; of ethics, not power; of character, not the formal dress of office. And it is not the place we turn to, to find the specification of official uniforms.”

Against our history and custom of dressing modestly, why is parsha Tetzaveh so specific and emphatic about the clothing to be worn by the priests? Clothing that openly and obviously (and perhaps ostentatiously) set them apart from the crowd?

The answer may be rooted in the two-word phrase I have quoted above, defining what the priestly vestments represent: dignity and adornment.

Maimonides observed that those who ministered at the Temple received great honor, and the priests were therefore distinguished from others. It was commanded that the priest be clothed properly, with “holy garments for glory and for beauty,” not to celebrate the beauty of the garments, but to dignify and adorn the Temple and, by extension, to glorify God. Extrapolating backward, the Mishkan was God’s house before the Temple was built, and it is logical that the fine outfits the priests were commanded to wear served the same purpose they did at the Temple. Jews believe in the glory and beauty of holiness. That glory and beauty was dignified and adorned by the sacred vestments worn by the keepers of the Mishkan; holy people charged with a particular function in religious life. Jewish spirituality is clearly about much more than looking impressive.

Psalm 132 says “May your priests be clothed in righteousness.” It seems that in parsha Tetzaveh, “dignity and adornment” is aimed at precisely that. It does not mean for the dignity and adornment of the priest. It means for the dignity and adornment of God and God’s presence. The job of the priests, and the message of their clothes, was to point in themselves to something beyond themselves; to be a living symbol of the Divine Presence in the midst of the Jewish people.


Shabbat shalom,

Jay Lavroff
Guest Darshan