After completing the detailed description of the Mishkan and its furnishings in Terumah, the Torah turns to the priestly garments to be worn by Aharon and his sons in Tetzaveh. The two parshiyot open in very similar ways. In commanding the building of the Mishkan, the Torah also states the purpose it is meant to achieve: “And you shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell in your midst” (Shemot, 25:8). Likewise, the Torah not only commands that the priestly garments be made, it also specifies their purpose: “And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother for honor and for glory” (Shemot, 28:3). This purpose, however, requires explanation. Why, we may ask, is it necessary for the Kohanim to be clothed in honor and glory? Why not wear clothes that communicate humility or cleanliness and simplicity? Why is such rich clothing necessary?
On the face of it, such rich garments would seem consistent with the general décor of the Mishkan; the gold, silver, and rich fabrics communicate wealth and majesty. But, of course, this only broadens the question: Why was the entire Mishkan—its structure, furnishings, and the clothing of its Kohanim—so focused on such trivial externals? Shouldn’t the message of the House of God be that God cares not about the externals, not what a person wears or how wealthy he or she is, but about who they are on the inside, what they really stand for? “For man sees with his eyes, but God sees into the heart” (Shmuel I, 16:7).
This question is truly challenging, and part of the answer undoubtedly lies in striking a balance between what will impact people where they are and bringing people to where they should be. Although we should look beyond superficialities and teach ourselves not to be impressed by them, at a visceral level, being impacted by externals is part of our human nature. How a person looks impacts what we think of them. How a place or building looks impacts our estimation of it and its function. The beauty of the Mishkan impressed the people with a grandeur and majesty befitting a house of God and instilled in them the proper sense of awe in their relationship to God. The paradox is that once one internalizes this awe and understands how elevated, how infinitely different, God is from the physical world, one should be propelled to be more like God, and should not be swayed by externals or shows of wealth but by things of true value: character, commitment, righteousness, and kindness. The opulence of the Mishkan—like the very phenomenon of any physical place for God—was necessary to reach the people where they were so that they could be elevated to where they needed to be, and somehow, it had to accomplish this without reinforcing the values it was working to move people from.
The beauty of the priestly garments, then, was part and parcel of the opulence of the Mishkan, and the deeper message of where true value lies would have to remain unstated and hopefully inferred. However, a closer look reveals that the garments were not all about beauty and wealth. While Aharon’s priestly garments, those of the Kohen Gadol, were made with threads of gold, crimson, sky blue, and royal purple wool, and while Aharon had a gold band on his forehead and a breastplate adorned with precious and semiprecious stones, the garments of his sons—those for all regular Kohanim—were unadorned and made of simple linen (cf. Shemot, 39:27–29). The clothes of the regular Kohanim, then, were of the utmost simplicity: an undergarment (mikhnasayim), a simple tunic (kutonet), a simple hat (migbaat), and a belt (avnet), essentially the clothing that we identify today — li’havdil — with a monk.
The Kohanim served as living models of what it means for a person to be close to God and to dedicate his or her life to God, and through their clothes, they embodied the ideal of this service, the ideal of simplicity and humility. At the same time, through the opulence of their appearance, the House of God and the Kohen Gadol—the one man who entered into to the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s Glory—expressed and embodied God’s majesty and instilled in the people a sense of God’s greatness, a feeling of awe and reverence.
Seen this way, the garments were instrumental in shaping the perception of the people, the non-Kohanim who came to the Mishkan and witnessed them. However, the Torah implies that the clothes were important for the Kohanim themselves: “And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother and his sons to minister (li’khahano, to serve as a Kohen) to Me” (Shemot, 28:4). The clothes were necessary to allow the Kohanim to serve, not just to make an impression on the people. And, indeed, the Gemara (Zevachim 17b) states that, “When their garments are not upon them, then their kehuna, their status as Kohanim [vis-à-vis the Temple], is no longer upon them.” The Kohanim, then, could not serve unless they were properly dressed to do so. How we dress not only affects how others perceive us and what we do, but how we think of ourselves and how we relate to the nature and importance of our activities. As job applicants are always told regarding interviews, “Dress as you would for the job itself.” One does not dress like an executive if one is applying to be a carpenter, and one does not dress like a carpenter if one is applying to be an executive. When we dress in a certain way, we tell ourselves and others who we are and what it is that we are doing.
Thus the Sefer HaChinukh (Mitzvah 99) states that the Kohanim were commanded to wear the priestly garments to shape their own self-perception:
משרשי המצוה. היסוד הקבוע לנו כי האדם נפעל לפי פעלותיו ואחדי מחשבותיו וכונותיו, והשליח המכפר צריך להתפיס כל מחשבותיו וכונתו אל העבודה, על כן ראוי ללבוש בגדים מיחדים אליה. שכשיסתכל בכל מקום שבגופו מיד יהיה נזכר ומתעורר בלבו לפני מי הוא עובד.
|From the reasons of this mitzvah, is the foundation that is established for us that a person is impacted according to his actions, and his thoughts and intentions will follow these actions. Now the agent who is achieving atonement [for others] must focus all of his thoughts and intentions towards the service. Thus, it is fitting for him to clothe himself in garments that are dedicated to this service, so that when he looks at any place on his body, he will immediately remember and awaken in his heart an awareness before Whom he serves…|
Clearly there is a lesson here for us as well. How we dress communicates a great deal to the world — sometimes accurately, sometimes inaccurately—about who we are. But perhaps more importantly, it also communicates to us — consciously or unconsciously — how we see ourselves. How do we dress on a daily basis? Do we dress sloppily, communicating to ourselves that we do not deserve care and attention, or do we dress nicely, telling ourselves that as a human being created in the image of God, as a person with infinite potential, we deserve proper care and respect? In both Laws of Avoda Zara, 11:1, and Laws of Character Traits, 5:11, Rambam states that a person must dress in a way that accurately reflects his or her commitments, values, and activities and an understanding of their self-worth. Dressing in such a way is just as important for oneself as it is for others.
This idea also finds pertinence when we dress in distinctively Jewish ways. In fact, the Talmud draws comparisons between tzitzit and the priestly garments and between tfillin and the tzitz, the gold headband of the Kohen Gadol. But we can communicate our Jewish identity even when we wear non-ritual garments. Ideally, doing so helps us remain cognizant of our values and commitments, and to strive to live up to these even in trying circumstances. The reality however is not so straightforward. First, it is not always possible to be hyper-vigilant about how one is projecting his or her identity. Moreover, sometimes wearing such clothing might work in the opposite direction. We might tell ourselves that, since we are dressing in a distinctive fashion, we are holy by definition, giving us license to act in unethical ways.
This complexity is reflected in the laws of the bigdei kehunah. On the one hand, the Talmud tells us that a Kohen does not violate the sanctity of the priestly garments if he uses them for a non-sanctified purpose because “the Torah was not given to the ministering angels” (Kiddushin 54a, Yoma 30a). We have to be able to live our lives normally, not always as if we are standing in the Temple. On the other hand, if a Kohen wears the priestly belt when he is not performing the Temple service, he transgresses the Biblical prohibition of shatnez because the belt is made of wool and linen. If we use the wearing of these garments to justify what otherwise would be forbidden, then we have turned their sanctity into sin.
In the absence of a Temple and sacrifices, we can still embody the ideal of the priestly garments. If we attend to how we dress and comport ourselves, we can achieve the delicate balance of allowing how we dress to inspire and empower us without crushing us with the weight of responsibility or giving us license to act improperly or immorally. In this way, we will be able to live a life of holiness as we don our holy garments and venture forth into the larger world.