Parshat Tetzaveh: The Sacred Garments of Aspiration

“Make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment,” (Shemot 28:2).

At the beginning of the parsha, the text outlines in great detail the beautiful and ornate wardrobe that Aaron, the High Priest, will wear as he performs his duties in the Mishkan. 

We are told of ornaments which use the most precious of materials, as well as require the highest level of craftsmanship. For example the choshen, the breastplate, is held up with braided chains of gold, and is filled with etched precious stones with names of all the twelve tribes. It must have been an absolutely breathtaking piece. 

But why is Aaron told to wear such extravagant items? We could imagine a servant of God, especially the High Priest, being told to wear very modest and simple garments. Why all the pomp and circumstance?

Additionally, who is the clothing for? Is it for the people, to illustrate Aaron’s exalted position, or is it for Aaron himself?

The text tells us that the clothes are “l’kavod u’l’teferet” for honor and for glory. It continues and says, “Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for sanctifying him to serve Me as priest” (Shemot 28:3).

It is the clothes themselves that sanctify and separate Aaron from the rest of the nation, and even from the other priests. On a simple level they are his uniform, but by donning these garments of grandeur Aaron is transformed. Only through these garments is he the Cohen Gadol.  

Listen to how Mark Twain articulates the significance of clothing: 

“[One] realizes that without his clothes a man would be nothing at all; that the clothes do not merely make the man, the clothes are the man; that without them he is a cipher, a vacancy, a nobody, a nothing… There is no power without clothes.”

The effect of these garments is experienced by the people as they look on at Aaron; it inspires awe and awakens them to the importance of his position. 

But the beauty and the grandeur of the clothing is also experienced by Aaron himself. As he dresses himself in these unique garments, his heart opens, and he accepts his unique role as the intermediary between the human and the Divine, between heaven and earth.

But of course there is another side to the story. Just because someone puts on the garments of the king, that does not make them the king. Shakespeare calls fashion “a deformed thief.” Someone can be the most vile person on the inside, but they can dress in the most glamorous clothing. 

Rebbe Nachman teaches that one needs to take great care with one’s clothes, and to make sure there are no holes or stains. This is because the higher the level a person is on, the more closely he is examined.

So it may be true that the High Priest could be wicked, despite his clothes; as a matter of fact, the Talmud records many such incidents. But the High Priest is not only revered, he is a public figure certain to undergo great scrutiny. Perhaps these exalted clothes themselves not only elevated the person, but also reveal the true nature of the man who wears them, both to the person himself, as well as to the nation. A wicked man will only be able to bear the weight of his false costume for so long.

So do clothes make the man, as the old adage goes, or is fashion a deformed thief? Clothing conceals, but through the concealing it reveals. We can only reveal ourselves to the world after getting dressed. And what we wear and how we wear it not only teaches others about who we are, but it teaches us so much about ourselves, and who we aspire to become. 

What do you think? What’s your favorite outfit? Why? What does it say about you?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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