Clothing humanity in dignity, awe and humility

Parashat Tetzaveh
Parashat Tetzaveh describes the bigde kahuna, the sacred garments of the Kohanim and in particular, of Aharon, the High Priest. The significance of clothing is noteworthy. Clothing is so overdetermined with meanings. Often those meanings evoke strong emotions. When a medical practitioner approaches us wearing a white coat, many people become passive. The uniform of a police officer evokes a range of powerful reactions, often depending upon context and ethnicity. Rabbinic or hasidic garb easily identifies a person and often evokes many assumptions, true or unfounded. Similar experiences can be associated with military personnel, and with clergy and practitioners of many world religions. Clothes indicate socio-economic status, profession, and insider-outsider status in a peer-group.
Clothing also prefigures throughout the Torah in significant ways. God clothed the first human beings in the Garden of Eden. Rivka clothed Yaakov in order to receive the blessing from the blind Yitzchak, and the rabbis traced the lineage of that garment from Eden to Nimrod the hunter. Of course, Yosef’s multi-colored coat signified his status in the family, and foreshadowed the Egyptian clothing given to Yosef by Pharoah. The significance of clothing is found throughout the Tanakh. One example will suffice: when the prophet Shmuel chastised King Saul for hoarding booty from Amalek and saving the life of Agag, Saul pleaded with him to intercede on his behalf with God. When Saul grabbed Shmuel’s cloak, tearing it, Shmuel tells him, “Just as this cloak was torn asunder, so too, has God torn you from the monarchy.” (I Samuel 15:27) Clothing signifies so much about a person’s status, their relationship to others and to God, and the emotional valence one projects. Of course, King Achshverosh must summon Esther to his throne-room with his golden sceptre, and the King’s ring signifies his power being transferred first to Haman and then to Mordechai. Ironically, Mordechai is dressed in the clothing Haman thought was intended for himself.
The power of clothing that all of these examples reflect applies to the clothing of the Kohanim, the main topic of parashat Tetzaveh. If one reads the details of the design, it becomes immediately apparent that the weavings, the colors, the patterns, the metal jewelry and the precious stones all imitate the materials, designs and patterns of the Mishkan itself. The patterns and colors of the ephod/apron, the me’il/robe, and the ketonet/tunic resemble the parochet and the yeriot (the curtains) of the Mishkan. The migbaat/turban and the tzitz/tiara connote the aron kodesh with the keruvim/cherubs on top, since these garments adorn the head of the High Priest and the tiara is engraved with God’s name. The choshen/breastplate is held in place with gold chains, much like all of the golden clasps holding together the cloth of the Mishkan’s hangings. The garments of the Kohen Gadol were also woven with solid gold thread. These features suggest that the Mishkan itself and the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, were spiritual isotopes of each other. The breastplate was held in place over the priest’s heart, containing twelve gems, each engraved with the name of a tribe. Just as God’s voice emanated from the Holy of Holies in the Mishkan, the identities of the entire nation entered into the heart of the high priest. God’s name sat on his forehead between his eyes, forever inscribed in his mind. The clothing of the Kohen Gadol, therefore, evoked an awareness of God’s presence. One became mindful that the divine presence filled the earth just as the incense filled the Ohel Moed, the Tent where the human and the divine met.
The coterminality of MIshkan and priestly clothing suggests deep sources of meaning beyond how any one element is aligned between the two. Semiotic studies can help us understand the gestalt-like power of how clothing affects us. Semiotics is the study of systems of signs, and how those systems communicate to members of a society in different ways. Semiotics is not the same as linguistics, . Semiotics investigates how non-linguistic sign systems convey meanings, and how to interpret those meanings. Semiotics studies such sign systems as “indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication.” (Wikipedia) Roland Barthes, the French philosopher of semiotics, wrote about “systems of fashion.” Gold prefigured as a critical element (literally) in both the Mishkan and the priestly vestments. Barthes wrote a trenchant semiotic analysis of the power of gold and the implications of its appearance in clothing:
…As a sign, what power it has! …it is precisely the sign par excellence, the sign of all the signs; it is absolute value, invested with all powers including those once held by magic: is it not able to appropriate everything, goods and virtues, lives and bodies? Is it not able to convert everything into its opposite, to lower and to elevate, to demean and to glorify? The gemstone has long participated in this power of gold. And this is not all: owing to the fact that gold very quickly stopped being convertible or useful and so removed itself from any practical application, pure gold, whose usefulness was almost entirely self-referential, became superlative gold, absolute richness—here the gemstone becomes the very concept of price; it is worn like an idea, that of a terrific power, for it is enough to be seen for this power to be demonstrated. (The Language of Fashion, Roland Barthes, pp. 55-56)
With these remarks about semiotics in mind, I would like to present a way of understanding the meanings of clothing in kabbalistic traditions. Already in classical midrashic sources, the ancient rabbis ascribed powers of atonement to the priestly garments:
The priestly garments effect atonement for the people just like the sacrificial offerings….The robe atones for the sin of forbidden mixtures…the breeches atone for adulterous and other forbidden sexual unions…the turban atones for the sin of degrading behaviors…the sash atones either for treachery or theft…the breastplate atones for the perversion of justice…the apron atones for the sin of idolatry…the tunic atones for both slander through the tinkling of the bells on its hem….and the tiara atones for arrogance….(Vayikra Rabbah 10:6)
One can make sense of the powers of atonement for a sacrificial offering. The efficacy of the sacrifice depends upon the mindfulness and intentionality of the one bringing the offering as well as those of the priest, supported by the technical procedures that structure the sacrificial ritual. It would seem, though, that these same features apply to dining clothing. The Ramban’s explanation of the Urim and Tumim, deposited inside the pocket of the Choshen, suggests that there was an inherent alignment between at least these particular parts of the priestly apparel, and Aharon’s vision and understanding. The Ramban explains that the Urim and Tumim aligned Aharon’s inner perceptions with how he saw features of the outside world beyond himself:
Through the power of God’s name [on the Urim] they illuminated the letters on the gems of the choshen so that the Kohen who asked God a question could see the response….The rabbis explained in the Talmud (Yoma 73b) that if, for example, the answer was, “Yehuda,” the letters spelling the name would light up from the letters found on the gems….However, although the Urim illuminated the letters, they did not appear to the Kohen’s eyes in the correct sequence, leaving many possibilities open to interpretation….However, the power of God’s name was also manifest in the Tumim. Through the divine power of the Tumim, the intuitive understanding in the Kohen’s heart (“mind”) was clear, so that his heart perceived what his eyes saw….Therefore, from our example, his eyes would see the correct combination of letters, and through the Tumim his heart would discern their meaning correctly….This quality of perception was not as divine as prophecy, but was more heavenly than the Bat Kol, the echo of a Heavenly voice that reverberated during the time of the second Temple. (Ramban 28:30 Urim & Tumim)
Although the relationship between Aharon and the Urim and Tumim seems mechanical, the Ramban still introduces the critical connection between outer and inner realities, between a sign denoting someone or something on the outside, and Aharon’s ability to interpret that sign clearly. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the 19th century Hasidic master, transformed the mechanistic function of the clothing into one that reveals Aharon’s interiority. In this sense, the clothing became a psychological lens focusing and illuminating Aharon’s character:
These are the garments that you shall fashion: the choshen and the ephod and the me’il….God shows the people the quality of [Aharon’s] nefesh, [the person] God is choosing to serve in the Mishkan. Through the garments the people will recognize the quality of Aharon’s character. The tiara reflects his intimacy with God… with an awareness of the divine etched deeply into his mind….The breastplate indicates that he harbors so hatred for any Jew in his heart….The Ephod indicates Aharon’s trust in God. The tunic reflects the awe Aharon has for God, since it was pure blue, the color of awe. The breeches guarded Aharon from lusting after idolatry…..(Mei HaShiloach)
These comments suggest the irony of the clothing. Garments cover, yet in their covering, they reveal. Insight and revelation about one’s neshama emerge through the layers of clothing. These traditions point towards two concepts of clothing, physical clothing and spiritual clothing. Physical clothing covers, while spiritual clothing reveal. Originally, God clothed the first human beings in light, as evidenced in the traditions of “primordial humanity,” the Shiur Qomah sources. The more alienated humanity became from our source, the more distant people journeyed from God, the more separated from God’s hope for humankind, the more exilic our existence, the more physical our garments. The original garments were spiritual; human beings were clothed in light like a type of spiritual “skin.” This idea was described in a 15th century kabbalistic word called, Sefer haMeshiv, the Book of the Answering Angel:
In order for angels to descend to earth, they needed to exchange their coverings of light for earthly garments: The secret of the garment is the vision of the garment, which the angel of God is dressed in, with a corporeal eye….And the secret of the garment was given to those who fear God and meditate on God’s name…..(from, Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation, Moshe Idel)
In these traditions, a malbush (literally, a “garment”) is a spiritual garment. Spiritual entities in the kabbalah (angels, for example) or qualities of character and faith in the more psychological Hasidic mystical tradition, require “garments.” These garments simultaneously reflect and evoke, cover and reveal, protect and make manifest the spiritual, internal realities of the one wearing the clothing. Just as we cannot exist physically without bodies and skin, our neshamot, our souls, the spiritual essence of each of us, cannot exist in this physical world without a spiritual malbush. Rabbi Hayyim Vital, in his Sefer haGilgulim, described this phenomenon this way: There is no soul (neshama) in this world that can exist naked, without a garment (Levush) in which it is clothed in this world. (Quoted in, L. Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship) I have read, furthermore, that in the 16th century, Rabbi Israel Sarug developed the concept of the spiritual malbush by connecting this idea to the 231 gates revealing the correct combinations of letters forming God’s name at the mystery of creation described in Sefer haYetzirah. Finally, Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, 16th century Safed, in his work, Or Ne’erav, assigned colors to the qualities of divine energy described as sefirot, emanations, that permeate all aspects of reality.
The priestly garments had all of these elements. Like the Mishkan itself, the garments were distinguished by specific colors. The Mishkan and now, by extension, the priestly garments, contained God’s holy name. They both made the letters of God’s name manifest in the word (the Mishkan containing the luchot and the keruvim, and the clothing, the tzitz.) Both the Mishkan and the priestly raiments covered and revealed. Both created and covered sacred space. His clothing transformed his body itself, containing Aharon’s neshama. Aharon, wearing his priestly vestments, might have been a paradigm for all of humanity, humanity’s physicality becoming a kodesh kodashim protecting the dignity and sanctity of life. Both the Mishkan and the garments created boundaries. Together, they pointed to the intimacy between God and humanity, between the human and the divine, while signaling the danger implicit in the impossibility of the two ever becoming one.
On this last point, it is no accident that the parasha opens with the commandment to manufacture pure olive oil, for the High priest to light the golden Menorah inside the Mishkan every night, while closing with a description of the golden incense altar. Light and fragrance frame the description of the clothing. Those symbols are precisely what these garments are intended to evoke: the awareness that God fills the world with light, illuminating humanity with spiritual sensitivity and wisdom, and that our olfactory sense can keep the memory of that holy presence immediate as a lived experience every moment we are alive. Light and fragrance evoke the sensory qualities that stimulate our awareness that as human beings, our task is to wear the spiritual garb of the High Priest, and to regard the body of humanity as sacred. Our task is to see the world the way the high priest saw himself, living in the world as if entering the Mishkan. Our job is to regard all of humanity as God’s holy people, to recognize the boundaries of injustice, cruelty and idolatry that we dare not violate. Like the high priest wearing his clothes, our task is to approach the world with humility, and to look with our eyes and see with our hearts the divinity infused throughout the world. The garments of the high priest are a sign that the physicality of the world is a malbush, a covering, and if we look perceptively, we will see the living neshama in every aspect of creation.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov
About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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