The kohanim hold a lofty position among the Jewish people. They serve before God in the Beit HaMikdash, protecting the Temple and executing all its functions. They are a fixture in the Temple; when one enters, he or she expects to see the kohanim in their priestly service as much as the glorious structure and all the vessels it contains. They are themselves klei kodesh, holy vessels, no less than the altar, the menorah, or the showbread table.
It is not surprising, then, that our parasha demands that as much care be given to the priestly vestments as to the making of the Sanctuary itself. They are the insignia of office, marking the special role of the kohanim and distinguishing them from the laity. They are themselves holy, bigdei kodesh, but also garments that confer holiness, marking the wearer as holy. And in the case of the Kohen Gadol, these clothes were more than different; they were expensive and exquisite. His garments were “for honor and glory” (Shemot, 28:2). The Kohen Gadol in his raiment was a symbol of the glory of God, commanding the people’s respect for the office, the Temple, and for God.
This is all pretty heady stuff. A person in such a role might begin to think of himself as God’s representative on Earth, to see himself in a position to dictate the will of God to the people. However, the verses make it clear that these same garments also serve to define the relationship of the Kohen Gadol to the people. The two shoulder stones of the ephod must be inscribed, we are told, with the names of the twelve tribes. These will be “memorial stones for the Children of Israel,” and in wearing them, the Kohen Gadol “will bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the Lord” (28:12). The twelve precious stones of the choshen,the breastplate suspended from these two shoulder stones, were also engraved with the names of the twelve tribes. Here, too, we read that these names will “be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord” (28:30). Thus the very garments which confer honor and glory are brought to the service of remembering the Jewish people before God.
As memorial stones, the function of these jewels is to evoke the memory of the people. But who is meant to remember them, the Kohen Gadol or God? The answer, it seems, is both. The Kohen Gadol must remember that he is in the inner- sanctum of the Temple as a representative of the people. If he keeps this in mind and remains humble, understanding that he enters therein not for his own honor and glory but for the sake of the people, then he will be fulfilling his role and function. He must always keep the names of those he is serving “upon his heart.” And if the Kohen Gadol does this and truly represents the people, then he will be able to bring their names before God. In doing so, he will become an embodiment of the people. His entering the Temple will be the people’s entering of the Temple, and his appearing before God will be the people’s appearing before God. It is thus through these stones that the people will be remembered not just by the Kohen Gadol, by also by God.
This can explain why there were two sets of memorial stones. The names of the tribes inscribed on the breastplate jewels could be read by others. They projected to all that of the Kohen Gadol was a representative of the people, and they let them know how close they were to his heart. Having the people close to his heart, however, also meant taking responsibility for them; it meant bearing their weight on his shoulders. This was represented by the names on the ephod stones; these names signified that the Kohen Gadol‘s role was to represent and be responsible for others, not to have power over them. These names, which could only be seen from above, would be seen by God, and the stones would therefore serve as a “memorial before the Lord.”
The Kohen Gadol, then, had a dual function. To the people he was part of the Temple, a holy vessel, and a representative of God. But to God he was a representative of the people. This double role is nicely distilled by a halakhic framing in the Talmud. Is the kohen, asks the Gemara in Yoma 19a, our agent or God’s? The answer, as we have seen, is both. But these two roles must be kept in proper balance. When Moshe described his role as leader to his father-in-law he named his many duties. First on the list was to represent the people: “The people come to me to inquire of God.” Last on the list was to represent God to the people: “And I make known to them the statutes of God and God’s laws” (Shemot, 18:15). Yitro reflected this back to Moshe, first saying: “You be for the people before God, and you shall bring their matters to God” (18:19). And only after: “You shall admonish them regarding decrees and the laws. And you shall inform them the path upon which they shall walk and the actions which they must do” (18:20).
The role of representing God to the people, of teaching God’s Torah and guiding them along the path, comes only after one has taken them close to his heart and accepted responsibility for them upon his shoulders. This role can only come if one is constantly bringing the concerns of the people to God, and therefore, it can only come if one understands their struggles and hopes, their religious striving and doubts, their accomplishments and their failures. It can only come if one is prepared to carry all this to God, to “be for the people before God.” Then and only then can one don the garments, making a claim to holiness as a representative of God to the people.
The great Chassidic rebbe, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809), was the paradigm of the religious leader as true agent of the people and defined his leadership by bringing the people and their concerns before God. Known as the “defender of Israel before God,” he was prepared to argue with God, even to challenge God, in defense of Klal Yisrael. This was particularly true on Yom Kippur, the day on which we stand before God seeking forgiveness. On this day, the shaliach tzibbur takes on the role of the Kohen Gadol, entering into the Holy of Holies so that he can bring atonement for the people. Reb Levi Yitzchak understood that this demands that one carry the names of the people in his heart and on his shoulder. On one Yom Kippur he refused to pray, saying to God, “If You refuse to answer our prayers, I shall refuse to go on saying them.”
On Yom Kippur, Reb Levi Yitzchak wrote and sang as special kaddish prior to leading the community in musaf. This kaddish is said after the shaliach tzibbur prays to God asking for help in this holy task, coming to represent the people to God. Here is the kaddish that he said after this prayer:
Peace be upon You, Master of the Universe.
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?
For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”
And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”
And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.”…
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
“Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name.”
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
“From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this [suffering].
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name.
So much of the Torah is “command the Children of Israel.” Indeed, even our parasha opens with this phrase:v’ata tizaveh et Benei Yisrael, “and now you should command the Children of Israel.” Unquestionably, the people must be taught the laws and be given religious guidance, but a leader can only earn the right to do this by truly and deeply identifying with them, their longing, concerns, struggles, and aspirations. Only if he is prepared to see the best in every individual and to argue – even with God – in their defense may one wear the priestly garments. Only then may one don the mantle of religious leadership, and only then will one truly merit being a klei kodesh, a holy vessel unto God.