Tetzaveh 5782 – Clothes Make the Priest

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In parshah Tetzaveh, God commands Moses:” Have Aaron and his sons serve me as priests. Make for them sacred garments using fine linen, gold, blue, purple and scarlet yarns. Make for them a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. These garments must be worn when officiating in my sanctuary.” The next 40 verses devoted to the elaborate description of these “sacred vestments” which the priests and the high priest would wear “for glory and splendor.” This seems to run counter to some fundamental values in Judaism. The vestments were made to be seen. They were intended to impress the eye. But why? The answer is that they represent an aesthetic dimension. Maimonides says that to those who really understand the nature of the religious life, appearances should not matter at all, but the multitude, the masses, the majority are not like that. They are impressed by spectacle, visible grandeur, the glitter of gold, the jewels of the breastplate, the rich pageantry of the scarlet and purple and the pristine purity of white linen robes. But this does not always figure prominently in Judaism. Judaism often seems almost puritanical in its avoidance of grandeur and display as opposed to the great empires Greece and Rome. The great difference between ancient Israel and ancient Greece is that the Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty whereas Judaism believes in the beauty of holiness. Judaism is a religion of the ear more than the eye. It emphasizes hearing rather than seeing. Jewish spirituality is about listening more than looking.

Clearly, the Mishkan and the priests’ sacred vestments were exceptions to this. This is very unexpected. Rabbi Sacks point out that the Hebrew word for “garment”, bigdei, also means to betray. He points out that throughout Genesis, whenever a garment is a key element of the story, it involves some deception or betrayal. There were the coverings of fig leaves Adam and Eve made for themselves after eating the forbidden fruit. Jacob wore Esau’s clothes when he took his blessing by deceit. Joseph’s brothers used his bloodstained cloak to deceive their father into thinking he had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph took advantage of his viceroy’s clothing to conceal his identity from his brothers when they came to Egypt. There are other examples as well. So, it is very unusual that the Torah should concern itself in a positive way with garments and vestments. Clothes have to do with surface, not depth; with the outward, not the inward; with the appearance rather than reality. All the more strange, therefore, that they should form a key element of the service of the priests, given the fact that” people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The purpose of the emphasis on the visual elements of the Mishkan and the grand vestments of those who ministered there, was to create an atmosphere of reverence because they pointed to a beauty and splendor beyond themselves, namely God, Himself. The vestments were a constant reminder to them of their sacred duties and responsibilities.

Following the detailed description of the priests’ clothes, the next section of the parshah deals with sacrifices. One might ask why the sections on sacrifices and the priestly vestments are written next to each other. The answer that is suggested is to teach us that just as sacrifices make atonement, so do the priestly vestments make atonement. The tunic atoned for bloodshed, the breeches atoned for lewdness, the turban made atonement for arrogance, the sash atoned for impure meditations of the heart, the breastplate atoned for neglect of civil laws, the Ephod atoned for idolatry, the cloak atoned for slander, the crown atoned for brazenness.

“Clothes make the man,” the old saying goes. Well, clothes certainly seem to impress us human beings. Nothing tells you more about a person or makes a greater first impression than how one is dressed. It is quite remarkable, really. A person’s entire character can be summed up by someone who does not know them simply by how they are dressed. Jobs have been won and lost and relationships continued or ended, all based on the clothes we wear.

But do clothes really make the man or woman? Clothes are an important part of our culture. Clothing reflects how we value ourselves and our bodies. Whether it is the carefully ripped jeans of a teenager or a three-piece suit the lawyer, the way an individual dresses projects an image or makes a statement about that person.

Who doesn’t remember as a young child being made to wear certain clothing we didn’t like? Then, as we got older, fighting at times with our parents over the clothes we loved? As soon as our parents stopped telling us what we could and couldn’t wear, society began doing its job. There was the pressure to” dress for success”, although we were not always sure for whose idea of success we were even dressing.
The clothes people wear today reflect the functions they serve in our communities. For instance, we recognize a police officer instantly by his or her blue uniform, which has come to symbolize law and order, and we associate a white lab coat with the medical profession.

When we perform a special duty or have a particular job, we often dress in a way that reflects this. For example, people wear business attire for job interviews because it is important to show a prospective boss that they know how to dress appropriately for the office. A politician is always impeccably dressed when making a public appearance. Ultimately, however, what is more important than the garment is the person wearing it. Thus, while clothes help a person project a proper image, it is his or her actions that determine whether or not he or she has fulfilled a role appropriately. For example, a person who dresses nicely for a job interview but cannot fulfill the demands of the job will not make a satisfactory employee, and a well-dressed politician with crooked dealings does not fulfill the ideals of public office.

Dressing to impress can influence how others see us, but what’s perhaps less obvious is how it can affect our own sense of self. Some psychologists think that physical objects, like clothes, can be used to change our internal mindset, allowing us to transition more easily into roles that are unfamiliar by first dressing the part.

When people look good, they feel good. A certain uniform or costume identifies a person’s role. But who a person is underneath the clothing is even more important than how he or she looks.
In summary, it would seem that dressing for success has potential benefits beyond how others see you. It may also help you see yourself in that new role you are working toward, and subconsciously help you to act, and not just look, the part. Be careful, though, since wearing the uniform cannot compensate for lack of ability. Be honest with yourself if you are compensating and think about upgrading your skill set before you upgrade your wardrobe.