By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
At this time of year, just before the joyous holiday of Purim, we become keenly aware of the role of the uniforms of royalty. The book of Esther reaches its happy climax when “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool” (Esther 8:15). This new attire mirrored the dramatic change in Mordecai’s position in the Persian Empire: “…All the officials of the provinces…showed deference to the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. For Mordecai was now powerful in the royal palace, and his fame was spreading through all the provinces…” (Esther 9:3-4).
Long before the Purim story and Mordecai’s rise to power, there lived another leader whose prescribed garb conveyed his special position. I refer to the passage in this week’s Torah portion, Tezaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10). There we read about the special clothing worn in the Tabernacle service by the priests, the kohanim, the sons of Aaron. Of special interest are the unique components of Aaron’s own uniform. Aaron was the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, the ancestor and the archetype for all future generations of High Priests. A special set of eight garments was designated for his exclusive use. One of these, in many ways the most important of all, was the Choshen Mishpat, commonly translated as “the breast plate of judgment” or “the breast piece of decision.”
Prominently suspended above the High Priest’s chest, the details of this sacred item include the following instruction: “Aaron shall carry the names of the Children of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he enters the Sanctuary for remembrance before the Lord at all times” (Exodus 28:29).
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, finds this requirement very strange. He asks, “Why the names of the twelve tribes? Don’t we commonly mention only the names of the three Patriarchs when we beseech the Almighty for His remembrance?” He answers his own question: “When one individual is selected from a group for a position of importance we are inclined to conclude that that one individual is chosen, and all the others are rejected. The chosen one is loved, and the rejected are despised. Here too, we might erroneously presume that Aaron was the Almighty’s favorite, and the rest of Israel somehow inferior to him. Therefore, the names of all the tribes of Israel were engraved upon the breastplate, indicating that all of Israel was equally beloved by the Almighty” (Kedushat Levi, Exodus 28:29).
Following Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s exposition, we become aware that, unlike worldly royal attire which proclaims the uniqueness and superiority of the wearer, Aaron’s special clothing was designed to convince him and everyone else that he was in no way superior to those whom he represented. Quite the contrary; the fact that all of the Children of Israel are equally favored by the Almighty is the central message of the sacred breastplate, the Choshen Mishpat.
The era of the Holy Temple is sadly long gone now. There is no longer a High Priest, and although the distant descendants of Aaron still dwell among us and play a role in our rituals, their special clothing is now only a matter of historical interest. Yet, there is a trace of the lesson of the sacred breastplate that has endured. This trace becomes apparent if one carefully examines the phylacteries, or tefilin, which Jewish men don most mornings of the year. If one gazes carefully at the undersurface of the leather phylacteries he will notice twelve stitches holding the various compartments in place. The halachic authorities inform us that these twelve stitches symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel (See Mishneh Berurah, 32:51/228).
The fundamental lesson here is that a true leader acts as the leader of all of his constituents and not merely as the leader of those who share his beliefs and convictions.
That Mordecai was such a true leader can be supported by a homiletic analysis of the very final verse of the book of Esther. It reads: “For Mordecai…was highly regarded by his many brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred.”
Rashi presents an alternative translation to the phrase, “he was highly regarded by his many brethren” — that is, many but not all. A contingent of Mordecai’s colleagues objected to Mordecai’s involvement in public affairs, which resulted in his diminished involvement in religious matters.
Why would the book of Esther end with a critical remark against the heroic Mordecai? Rabbi Shalom Yosef of Shpikov explains that the entire verse is a salute to Mordecai’s great leadership. Yes, Mordecai had his opponents. But nevertheless, he sought the good of his people, even those who disagreed with him.
The Megilah begins with an account of Mordecai’s concern for Esther. It ends with the portrait of a leader who seeks the well-being of all of his people, even of those who are disappointed in him.
Purim is an opportune moment for us all to pray that our contemporary world leaders learn to emulate Mordecai’s example.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.