You may have noticed that every year that is not a leap year, Parshat Tetzaveh is read the Shabbat before Purim (or you may not have noticed; these parshiot are not known for being the Torah’s most captivating). That proximity of parshah to holiday suggests that each sheds light on the other, and the question becomes: to what extent?
Some would call the link a mirage and the calendar a coincidence. As opposed to certain other parshiot, where the calendar is rigged to insure a connection between the Torah reading and particular annual events (most noticeable, perhaps, is Parshat Devarim, read the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, with its prominent “Eikhah esa levadi…” (Deut. 1:11) read with the plaintive notes of Megillat Eikhah), Parshat Tetzaveh is not presented as a pivotal Torah-reading for the season per se. Nonetheless, it may be in our best interest to assume (especially in this Purim season) that nothing is a coincidence — a point we will come back to after considering the parshah.
The dominant topic of this week’s parshah is the bigdei kehunah, the priestly garments. The eight special items to be worn by the kohen gadol (high priest) when he performs the Temple service are luxuriant. Essentially the garb of royalty, they are made of elegant, expensive fabrics, dyed rich colors in an era when the dyes themselves were hard to come by, and adorned with gold and special gems. These were no ordinary clothes, and they were for no ordinary person. Which is exactly their purpose, of course. Only the high priest wore the prescribed garments — and only when he was involved in the Temple business. The garments were not his personal property; they belonged to the Jewish people. Were he to leave the Temple on personal business, for example, he presumably wore regular clothes.
But this attention to the detail of attire might catch us by surprise (if we hadn’t seen this parshah in previous years). Since when does the Torah pay detailed attention to the way people dress? Even in the Book of Deuteronomy, where men are prohibited from wearing women’s clothes, and women from men’s, the biblical verses leave us to assess our own fashions-of-the-times to determine which is which.
A quick survey of the discussions of clothing in the Torah indicates that clothing has two distinct but not mutually exclusive purposes: 1) dignity and 2) identity. Think of the first incident of dress: God clothes Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Before they have eaten from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they have no awareness of their nakedness, but as soon as they attain that awareness, God’s act of kindness protects their dignity. Think of the lengths to which Rebekah and Jacob go to disguise his identity, however. There, the garments (and the smell of them) not only mask him, but imply the presence of his brother. Or the ketonot pasim — Joseph’s coat of many colors. A gift from his father, the garment is one of honor, of dignity. But when his brothers bring it before their father smeared with blood, the coat is more than symbolic of Joseph; Jacob understands that what has happened to the coat has indeed happened to his beloved son. The coat provides vivid (and unfortunate) representation of Joseph’s identity.
The garments of the high priest are no less vivid. Only one person amongst all of the Children of Israel may wear these eight garments — he is easily identifiable. And the clothes themselves offer their wearer honor and dignity without question. But this is clearly an example of “the clothes make the man” instead of the reverse (take that Hollywood runway, for example, where a gown will become a best seller not because of its loveliness but thanks to the “billboarding” by the actress who has borrowed it for the evening). It is by virtue of the office of the high priest that that particular priest wore the priestly garments — and not because of his own sense of importance or stylishness, for example.
Let us examine what offers perhaps the most the picturesque image of all the bigdei kehunah: the me’il. This outer coat, worn over the ketonet, and under the ephod (tied over the me’il) is striking not only because it is unadulterated tekhelet (see Rashi there, as well as www.tekhelet.com to learn more about the vibrant blue and the complicated process by which it is made), but because of the bells and pomegranates that decorate the hemline of the garment.
The debate between Rashi and Ramban (among others) whether the verse indicates that the bells were interspersed between the pomegranates, or that the clappers of the bells were physically inside the pomegranates is well-known. Let us therefore attempt to understand why this particular motif was appropriate design for the kohen gadol.
The Torah itself teaches that the ringing (or perhaps tinkling) of the bells is key to an understanding of the decoration (Ex. 28:35). Perhaps the sound of the approaching high priest was akin to the trumpeting herald who announces the arrival of a king. Of course, any who saw this figure approach would know who he was; but what about the person who was not looking in his direction? That person cannot be faulted for his disregard of the important personage — he is ignorant — but the slight is not acceptable. The kohen gadol therefore heralds his own arrival; all pay him homage, and through their respect to his office, they honor the One they serve.
Why then the pomegranates? Pomegranates are known for many things – of late, they have achieved a heightened profile, for their anti-oxidants and vitamin C, and some years ago, pomegranate oil was introduced to the American palate through the gourmet section of the supermarket. Pomegranates are one of the seven blessed species of the Land of Israel, and they seem to be a fairly hardy fruit, for they have been cultivated throughout the world, in varying terrains and climates. Throughout the ages, they have symbolized strength, fertility, and most prominently in Jewish tradition, the 613 mitzvot. More so than any of the other fruits of Israel, therefore, the pomegranate is a meaningful ornament for the high priest’s me’il. The high priest wears the mitzvot not on his sleeve, and not even on his garment’s four corners, like the rest of the Jewish people — but he is completely surrounded by this sweet reminder of the mitzvot. And as he enters the Holy of Holies with the pa’amonim ve-rimonim (bells and pomegranates) encircling his hemline, he reminds those who behold him (and presumably himself as well) of the injunction to be righteous. “Ve-lo yamut” (he shall not die) — in wearing the priestly garments properly, the kohen gadol protects himself in the Holy of Holies, and he venerates the office for which they stand.
But why read Parshat Tetzaveh immediately before Purim? Well, the pageantry of Megillat Esther is well-known, and the lush excess of Ahasuerus’s palace stands parallel (or in marked contrast, presumably) to the luxury of the priestly garments. But if we recognize the dignity of attire — and the way in which clothing both reveals and hides its wearer, then the connection between the priestly garments and the holiday of Purim becomes clearer. Consider the tradition of costumes on Purim, and that of masks. For if the priestly garments are by virtue of the office, then dressing up on Purim carries the message of provoking deeper truths to emerge, especially as there is no “office” driving the attire. Look at the children in the streets, how their costumes and their masks are often instrumental to their frivolity and their joy — even this year, the children are out in costume, hopefully distancing, and with additional masking! Recall that even as the clothing makes the man, so too do those who clothe themselves with dignity earn the dignity of their garb.