Minutes of Torah
This week’s parshat Tetzaveh is dominated by a description of the special clothing that Aaron and all future priests were to wear when performing their sacred service. This reading draws our attention to the roles that clothing serves in our lives, whether to deceive and conceal — or to beautify and reveal.
Although the entire people are charged with the sacred task of constructing the Mishkan, the priests have a particular function to play and are to wear sacred garments in fulfilling their duties. This description of priestly vestments represents a drastic shift in the role of clothing in the Torah. Throughout the book of Genesis, clothing is frequently utilized for deceptive means. For example, Jacob wears Esau’s clothes to mislead Isaac; Joseph’s many-colored tunic generates enmity with his brothers, who later dip it in blood to deceive Jacob; and Joseph’s Egyptian garb fools the brothers when they come to Egypt.
Although parshat Tetzaveh speaks of the ritual function of clothing in relation to the priestly caste, ultimately the symbolic role of garments was to be assumed by the whole community, which a few weeks ago in parshat Yitro was charged to be a “kingdom of priests.” With the destruction of the Temple and the functional end of the priesthood, the sacred significance of clothing was assumed by the Jewish people in general.
For example, according to the Talmud, one’s Shabbat clothing should reflect a higher level than one’s ordinary, weekday garments, with one rabbi even describing his clothes as “my honorers.” Among other things, the purpose of clothing is to teach us to aspire to understanding not only our clothes, but also our very being, as a “garment” revealing Divine qualities. Thus, we are to understand ourselves as embodying garments which reveal the Divine in this world.
Ben Zoma’s classic teaching (included in our weekly journey in the Pirkei Avot) sums up how we are to garb ourselves in bigdei kodesh, in sacred vestments which manifest kavod:
“Who is honorable? One who honors all people.”
Kavod involves treating oneself and others in a way that reflects the reality that all people are created in the divine image.
But, in the meantime, we are constantly being distracted by an inner voice which represents our ego. We might understand this ego as a “garment” which simultaneously masks, or reflects, its own soul — our spiritual essence. We may become aware of our ego’s natural inclination to prop itself up by seeking “false” honor from others.
When we notice our resort to external “false” affirmations of honor, our eyes can open to a holier alternative: remembering our kavod, our inherent worth. When self-doubt leads us towards this erroneous affirmation, we can reimagine ourselves as a “sacred garment,” a container for our inherently pure soul, our innate dignity as a precious child of God.
Parashat Tetzaveh also relates that golden bells were to be sewn on the hem of the High Priest’s coat, and that these bells would ring when he entered and exited the sanctuary.
The chiming of the bells as the priest enters and leaves the sanctuary is meant to alert the priest and remind him to focus exclusively on the spiritual meaning of his vestments, to glorify the godliness within him, and not his egotistical sense of self. They alert him, and us, to the presence of kavod.
Thus, the bells on the hem eternally serve as a “spiritual alarm,” a wake-up call. They remind us to catch ourselves when we underestimate our own worth, or that of others. In each moment, they call us to see ourselves and every person we meet as a manifestation of the Divine. This week, in our comings and goings, when we look in the mirror and when we regard the countenance of every person we encounter, may we hear those chimes — and realize in that moment that we are witnessing and greeting the face of God.