Tetzaveh: The Emperor’s new clothes

Last week we had the privilege of entertaining Rabbi Eliezer and Rebbetzin Ilana Bercuson, who are the JLIC Campus Rabbinic Couple at Princeton University. Rabbi Bercuson and I attended Yeshiva together, and getting together is always an interesting time, filled with very interesting conversations on a whole host of issues pertaining to the community as well as the world in general. At Seudat Shlishit in our community, Rabbi Bercuson spoke of the clothes that people wear, and the relationship to the priestly vestments that the Jewish people are instructed to make in this week’s Parasha. This reminded me of an idea that I penned for Yom Kippur regarding the power of clothing, and the relationship between our clothes and the way we dress and the connection we have with God.

So I thank Rabbi Bercuson for his prompt, and hope that if anything in this piece was mentioned by you, you will take the overall credit!

A person is judged by the way he looks, rightly or wrongly, this is the way we initially judge people – we scan them with our eyes, looking up and down to make sure they are presentable – we group people together based on their clothes – the power suits indicates to many of us the corporate world, the baggy clothes of people with less means than we have, fresh pressed clothes as someone who cares about his or herself, scrunched and wrinkled clothes of people who may not.

We can form our entire opinions based on what a person looks like, perhaps even make a final decision of whether to talk to a person, listen to a person, grant someone guilty or determine them as innocent.

The Torah instructs in Exodus 28:2

וְעָשִׂיתָ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת

You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory.


And then goes ahead and details the full spectrum of clothes

וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט וְעָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וּלְבָנָיו לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי

And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen, an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me [as priests].


These are royal clothes, and those who wear them serve the king. If we bumped into the High Priest, or of we saw him at any official engagement we would know he is of some stature. However later in the Torah, by the reading for the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:2, it instructs the type of clothing that the High Priest should wear on the day of atonement while conducting his service – they are very different types of clothes.

כְּתֹנֶת בַּד קֹדֶשׁ יִלְבָּשׁ וּמִכְנְסֵי בַד יִהְיוּ עַל בְּשָׂרוֹ וּבְאַבְנֵט בַּד יַחְגֹּר וּבְמִצְנֶפֶת בַּד יִצְנֹף בִּגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ הֵם וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ וּלְבֵשָׁם

He shall wear a holy linen shirt and linen pants shall be upon his flesh, and he shall gird himself with a linen sash and wear a linen cap these are holy garments, [and therefore,] he shall immerse himself in water and don them


How could it be that the same person, the representative of the Jewish people to God, can have a set of clothes that speaks volumes, and another that is has the mute button on?

What would we think if we were in a meeting with a person of such high authority, a person like the President of this country, or the Queen of England, and someone walked into the room with nothing but a simple white outfit made from linen? How would our minds jump, what conclusions would we make, how would we react?

Masechet Rosh Hashanah 26a tells us that the Kohen Gadol is the defender of the Jewish people, he comes into the kodesh kedoshim in simple white vestments, because, had he entered with the golden finery of his regular clothes, he would transform into the prosecutor, reminding Hashem of our treason at the Golden Calf, and ultimately not ensuring our forgiveness. The Kohen Gadol is forced to enter in a state of humility.

There are times and places for different clothes, for example we have clothes that are for weddings and celebrations, others that are for casual occasions, others for sleeping and lounging around, and others for times of mourning. We are not lacking for clothes.

Clothes define who we are, and what we are doing. The Kohen Gadol in our Parasha is being instructed to wear clothes that contain pomp and circumstance in order to inaugurate the tabernacle, later it is for a solemn occasion. In both example we know that they lead to a close connection to God. We need to realize that people look at us and judge us by the way we look and act – and this in turn lets them judge the way we are connected to God. It is our job to make sure that impression is good, and that we show how strong our connection with our maker is!

About the Author
Originally from Auckland New Zealand, much of Alon's time over the past ten years has been for the growth and development of community. Alon has an MA in Sociology from the University of Auckland, and is a graduate of Yeshiva University's Semicha program. He is the Rabbi of the ACT Jewish Community in Canberra, Australia. Alon also holds a degree in Medieval Jewish History.
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