Parashat Tetzaveh: Clothes Make Much More Than the Person

Posted on February 23, 2024 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 gives Moses specific directions for the building of the Mishkan. Having now designed a sanctuary so that God may dwell among the people 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. Aaron and his sons will hold this office. 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 head dress, and a sash, all made of the best and most valuable materials. Pure gold. Fine linen. Precious stones. No fashion designer could envision a more intricate and lavish set of work clothes than that which God commands Aaron and his sons to wear.

On the one hand, requiring all these fancy accoutrements seems logical. After, all, the Mishkan is God’s house. The priests are the staff in that house, performing the Mitzvot which God has handed down, including 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?

Yet, are not 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 and accessories? Rabbi Gluck often tells 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 invited, so why shouldn’t his clothing enjoy the feast? And flashy garments can be the source of terrible trouble. Think about the many-colored coat that Jacob gave to Joseph, and how his strutting around in it angered 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 emphatic about the clothing to be worn by the priests, that openly, obviously, and perhaps ostentatiously, sets them apart from the crowd?

The answer may be rooted in the two-word phrase from the parsha quoted above that defines 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 priests 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. The Mishkan was God’s house before the Temple was built, and the special clothing worn by the priests in both places likely served the same purpose.

As Jews, we 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. The dignity and adornment are not of the priest wearing the garb, but rather 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 amid the Jewish people.

Shabbat shalom.

Jay Lavroff

Guest Service Leader