Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 24 February 2018 / 9 Adar II 5778

Parshat Tetzaveh

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Cut from the Cloth of Character

Clothes don’t make the man. Or do they?

The Kohen’s garments were more than a uniform. The entire character of the priesthood and the validity of the offering procedures depended on these priestly garments, and on every detail prescribed for them in this week’s Torah portion. Without these garments the Kohen is not fit to perform Temple service; the service is invalid. Without them the Kohen exposes his own persona, with all its faults and weaknesses, and is thus unfit to serve. But when he is clothed in the priestly garments, the Kohen assumes a new identity. He does not appear as he actually is, but as he ought to be, and can then meet the standards of sanctity required for the service.

Our Scripture is full of references to clothing, expressing, and even imbuing, character. Consider the first appearance of clothing in the Torah. After Adam and Eve sin, and they are banished from Gan Eden, G-d clothes them. Now that they are in danger of straying to the level of beast, they are given clothing to remind them of their higher moral calling.

The Hebrew words for clothe, cover and clothing are often used to describe the integration of character traits. G-d is said to be clothed in majesty, in righteousness, and in zeal, among other attributes. Our prophets describe man as clothed in salvation, righteousness, strength, dignity and faithfulness, and there are several instances where the kohanim are singled out as being clothed in righteousness and salvation. (Tehillim 132:9, 16) The garments of the Kohen must express the character he is to achieve, and set the standard for the nation as a whole. The Kohen must not wear anything else on his body that would interfere with these garments — he is to be one with the traits they symbolize.

Rav Hirsch’s commentary leaves nary a detail of these garments unexplored. Here, we share only two examples. The linen pants of the Kohen are called michnesei bad, and the Torah instructs that they cover his nakedness, from his waist until his thighs. Thus, they cover the parts of the body involved in nourishment and reproduction; they cover them with the quality of purity, symbolized by the white linen. Purity is especially relevant to these two realms of human activity. The name for linen, “bad” derives from the special way in which the plant grows as it rises from the ground: it rises in straight, separate, unbranched stems. This represents the straight, predetermined and undeviating path that purity demands.

The tunic, extending from shoulder to heel, also represents purity. The tunic thus covers the entire body, except the head; it clothes the animal nature of man with purity. It is woven into a small pattern of hollows, like hollows into which stones are set. This represents two fundamental steps required in the quest for purity: first, one must remove anything impure, creating a hollow space for the good to be set. As King David writes, shun evil and do good. (Psalms 34:15)

All of the Kohanic garments must be supplied and owned by the nation. The people, too, are to reflect on the attributes befitting a servant of G-d, even outside the Temple, and ‘clothe’ themselves accordingly.

  • Source: Commentary, Shemot 28:43

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