Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 7 March 2020 / 11 Adar II 5780

Parshat Tetzaveh

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Dressed to Atone

Our Sages see significance in the juxtaposition of the priestly garments to the offerings in that both provided opportunities for atonement. They note how each of the priestly garments represents atonement for a particular misdeed, as discussed below. The Kohen Gadol’s garments symbolized the moral standard that the nation was to accept upon itself. The positive symbolic expression of these dictates in the Sanctuary made clear that neither the Sanctuary nor the nation condone their violation.

The michnasayim represent moral purity they covered the lower part of the body, expressing the nation’s protest of sexual transgressions. The ketonet covered the upper part of the body, including the arms. Accordingly, it invests man’s activity with the character of innocence and obedience to Torah It atoned for murder, the worst breach of social transgressions.

The avnet, a sash worn at the waist, demands the consolidation of all of one’s energies for the fulfillment of life’s purpose. This consolidation leaves no room for sinful thoughts, and thus the avnet atoned for digressions of the heart.

The mitznefet, the head covering, reminds the high priest — who holds the nation’s most honored position — that even he must keep constant watch over the purity of his personal attributes and guard himself against arrogance and pride. Thus, the head covering atoned for conceit.

The choshen, worn as a breastplate, subordinated the nation’s will and aspirations to the Will of G-d. The breastplate bearing the urim v’tumim was consulted in times of doubt or confusion. Thus, the choshen atones for judicial errors in Jewish courts.

The meil, the outer coat, atoned for slander, and announced a moral duty to judge others favorably. The meil was trimmed with alternating bells and decorative cloth pomegranates. The numerous seeds inside the pomegranate symbolize a life full of active duties — the various and diverse roles, traits and qualities of man. Even an “empty” Jew is considered to be full of good deeds like a pomegranate (Berachot 57a). Thus, the meil with its pomegranates remind the Jew of the ignominy and distortion of slander.

Finally, the tzitz, the metal plate worn on the Kohen’s forehead, atoned for brazenness. Now, brazenness is a quality that has redeeming virtue — it surely can be misused, but a firm and unwavering character is also necessary to achieve moral perfection. The positive brazenness for G-d was emblazoned on the tzitz’s inscription: Kadosh L’Hashem (Holy unto G-d); it sanctified the positive trait of unwavering firmness in the struggle against falsehood, and at the same time it protested all misuses of this trait.

Source: Commentary, Shemot 25:43

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