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Parashat Tetzaveh

March 1, 2007

By Halina Rubinstein

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Ex.27:20-30:10), is also Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim. We will read this portion as well as the verses that command us to remember the encounter of Israel in the wilderness with Amalek (Deut. 25:17-19), who sought to destroy them cruelly and gratuitously. Generations later, Saul’s failure to kill Agag the Amalekite king ‘ a failure that will ultimately cost him his reign– is the theme of the Haftarah reading (I Sam.15:2-34).

One of the distinct features of this Torah portion is the minute description of the priestly vestments, particularly those of the High Priest. Clothing has great significance in the Bible. The first act of hesed (kindness) was performed by God when He made garments to cover Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit that made them aware and ashamed of their nakedness. Ever since, one of the things that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the fact that we wear clothes. Clothes serve the biblical narratives in different ways. Jacob disguises himself with sheep’s skins to steal his brother’s blessing; he later gives his son Joseph a special coat that serves as a constant reminder of his status in the household as the favorite son. In I Samuel clothes are used symbolically throughout: Jonathan gives David his royal cloak; Tamar is raped and tears her virginal clothes and in our Haftarah reading the torn cloak serves as a symbol of damaged relationships.

So it comes as no surprise that the priests ought to wear special garments, but why did the priestly clothes have to be so intricate and rich and ostentatious?

In the Guide of the Perplexed (III-45), Rambam explains that the Priests and Levites were singled out in order to exalt the Temple and the garments they wore were holy garments, for splendor and for beauty, but they themselves had to be free of blemish because ”for the multitude an individual is not rendered great by his true form but by the perfection of his limbs and the beauty of his clothes; and what is aimed at is that the Temple and its servants should be regarded as great by all.’ Moreover, Rambam gives the reason for the watch around the Temple so no ‘disheveled’ individuals may approach the sanctuary.
The Midrash senses a certain tension by the elevation of the priests. Certainly, there was a time when the Temple had been defiled by priests looking not to serve but to exert power, as was the case after the rise of the Hasmoneans. Leviticus Rabbah mentions that the priestly garments had a purpose, not just beauty and splendor, but that they brought atonement. It suggests specific explanations of how the various articles of priestly garb atone for particular sins and for the actions of particular groups of people: 1) the tunic atones for those who wear kilayim [cloth made of wool and flax mixed together] 2) the trousers atone for illicit sexual intercourse 3) the headdress atones for the haughty 4) the sash atones for thieves 5) the breastplate atones for those who pervert the law.

We stopped the service of the Jerusalem Temple long ago but we did not discard the priestly vestments. Each Torah that we parade in synagogues around the globe carries these garments in the form of beautiful mantles, breastplates and silver pomegranates.

We read in Parashat Yitro a few weeks ago the statement that Israel is a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. God instructed us to wear special garments as well, in the form of tzitzit and tefillin as a constant reminder of our relationship to God and our responsibility to the Torah’s commandments. We are a nation that carries a Torah of ethical values and social responsibility. Our challenge is to let our souls shine through our garments.

Shabbat Shalom