Parashat Tetzaveh

Clothes Make The Person

The emphasis on the priestly clothes teaches us the importance of bringing honor and splendor to God and the commandments.

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The whole point of putting people into uniforms 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. When we do want to stand out, we can do so through what we wear.

The Torah certainly understands this as well. In this week's parashah, more than forty verses, an unusually high number for any single topic, are devoted to the subject of the Bigdei Kodesh, the holy clothing or ritual garments for the high priests. "Make Bigdei Kodesh--holy garments--for Aaron your brother," Moses is told, "for dignity and splendor." Most of the rest of this text is elaboration of this command; details of how these garments are to be made.

So what is so important about the garments of the High Priest? Does not Judaism, particularly in a ritual sense, usually focus on the inner qualities, frowning on such outward materialism as clothing? How then can these 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 Hiddur Mitzvah--the enhancement of the fulfillment 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.

But Ramban (Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) notes that the commandment to dress the High Priest in garments for glory (kavod) and splendor (tiferet) is not only to enhance the status of the priest himself, but also to enhance the glory of God.

Ramban notes that in the mystical teachings, kavod and tiferet are Sefirot, Kabbalistic terms for emanations of God. And so, through these very specific types of garments worn by the Priest, God is connecting with the people and God's presence amongst the people is further demonstrated. In some way, the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out in the priest and worn on the outside with his clothing.

Just as the crown and royal colors command the respect of a people for a king, and enhance his position among his people, so too the Bigdei Kodesh add much to the honor and esteem of the High Priest, and to the Divine One whom the High Priest serves.

Through dressing in special garments, the priest is constantly reminded of his special role, and the sanctity of his calling. It is a symbol, a reminder. But Bigdei Kodesh--holy clothes--are only holy when they cover Ish Kodesh--a holy person. To be an Ish Kadosh one does not need to be a priest. We all have the potential for such holiness. Perhaps we just need to dress the part....

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.