Parashat Tetzaveh continues with the theme that defines most of the rest of the Book of Exodus: the construction and institution of the Mishkan, the tabernacle. This week’s reading specifically focuses on the Kohanim, the Priests who perform the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Great detailed descriptions (more than forty verses, an unusually high number for any single topic) are given of the complex ritual garments of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) who was to be majestically dressed in gold and adornments of precious stones.
“Clothes make the man,” the old saying goes. Well, clothes certainly do seem to impress us human beings. Nothing tells you more about a person, or makes a greater first impression, than how one is dressed. It’s quite remarkable, often a person’s entire character can be summed up by someone who does not know them simply by how they are dressed. For example, the whole point of putting people into uniforms is to minimise their differences; to make individualisation impossible, and to reduce independence. 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, Moses is told to, “Make Bigdei Kodesh–holy garments–for Aaron your brother, for dignity and splendour.” 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 splendour?
It seems that the Torah is indeed telling us that clothes do make the man, or at least the role in which the man is serving. Meaning, when Aaron engages in work that is holy, he is to be suitably dressed in holy garments; clothes that add dignity and splendour to the work. This is Hiddur Mitzvah–the enhancement of the fulfilment of a mitzvah, 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 fulfil the minimum requirement of the mitzvah–but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.
Through dressing in special garments, the priest is constantly reminded of his special role, and the sanctity of his calling. I like this interpretation, because it conveys a very important message for us. Not “Clothes make the man”, but the things we do. A garment is as much a “tool” as any other ritual object (e.g. a Mezuzah or a Tallit) we use to focus our thoughts on serving God. Being precisely, only our acts, our intentions, and our interaction with others are the relevant parts in doing something holy.
Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen on Tetzaveh, Graphic: Wikipedia)