Jewish Life

Torah Portion – Tetzaveh

By Shlomo Riskin

The Torah portion of Tetzaveh is dedicated to Aaron and his children, the High Priest and the Holy Temple priesthood. We are given a precise description of the ritual by which they were consecrated for their Divine task, including the specific Sanctuary offerings that were to be brought.

But what is most jarring is the painstaking description of the unique apparel of the priests, the eight special garments of the High Priest and the four special garments of the regular priests. The Torah commands: “And you shall make sacred garments for Aaron your brother for honor and glory,” and the Talmud stipulates that only when properly garbed are the priests endowed with sanctity and permitted to minister in the Sanctuary (B.T. Zevahim 17b). Is the Torah then teaching us that “clothes make the man?” What about the internal characteristics of knowledge and virtue and commitment?

The priestly garb is not meant to endow sanctity, but rather to inspire sanctity – as well as to instill within the priests the confidence that they can make the entire world sacred. Moreover, the Torah teaches that every Jew must see him/herself as a High Priest dressed in sacred vestments, a member of “a holy nation and a Kingdom of priests.”

Immediately prior to the revelation at Sinai, there is a strange dialogue between God and Moses, in which the Almighty calls out to Moses, Moses attempts to climb to the top of the mountain, God tells Moses to go down to the nation, Moses complains that the nation has been disallowed from ascending the mountain, and God again tells Moses to go down (Ex. 19:20-25). My revered teacher Rav J. B. Soloveitchik ZTZ”L explained that Moses thought, in accordance with the other religions, that spirituality means to leave the material world and ascend to the celestial spheres of the Divine; therefore, God had to explain to Moses that Jewish spirituality means to bring God down into the material world and sanctify it. This is indeed the basic function of Torah: to sanctify the kitchen and dining room with kashrut, to sanctify the bedroom with family ritual purity, to sanctify the marketplace with business ethics, to sanctify the calendar with holy days and sacred moments.

God gave us a world – albeit an imperfect, incomplete world with darkness as well as light, evil as well as good – and expects us to remake the world into a veritable sanctuary so that the Divine will feel comfortable dwelling among us. This is the charge as well as the challenge. And those who are expected to transmit and effectuate this message are the priests, and especially the High Priest.

In order to do so, the High Priest must first see himself as being capable of carrying out such a formidable task. He must see himself as a powerful king, representing the King of all Kings, garbed in regal robes of honor and glory. His dress expresses a message. Just as the ideal King of Israel dare not involve himself with opulent, material blandishments like numerous wives, horses, gold and silver but must demonstrate his devotion to God by always having with him a copy of the Torah (Deut. 17:16-20), so must the High Priest wear the “tzitz” on his forehead “always,” a gold head-band on a thread of tchelet (heavenly royal blue) on which was written “holy unto the Lord” (Ex. 28:36-38). And just as the ideal king of Israel must understand that his authority derives from his nation (Deut. 17:18-19), so does the High Priest wear the breast-plate of justice over his heart, upon which were embroidered twelve precious stones upon which were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Every Israelite must also see himself as a High Priest in function, as a proud representative of a holy nation and kingdom of priests. After all, does not the male Israelite dress himself every day in his phylacteries, the head tefilin atop his forehead on the place of the High Priest’s tzitz and the hand tefilin opposite his heart, the place where the breast-plate of the High Priest expressed the names of the twelve tribes? And the tefilin are called a symbol of glory (pe’er, Ezek. 24:17), just as the regal robes are vestments of honor and glory (tife’eret, Ex. 28:2); and in wearing the tefilin, the Jew becomes adorned with the four portions of the Torah – expressing love of G-d, fealty to commandments, the sanctity of the people of Israel and the sanctity of the land of Israel-placed in the tefilin batim (house-like repositories), much like the King is adorned with the copy of the Torah which must always accompany him.

Moreover, the second traditional Jewish garb is the talit katan (“Prayer Shawl”), featuring a thread of t’chelet (heavenly royal blue) which is a salient feature of the High Priest’s tzitz and is significantly called by the Bible “tzitzit,” or a “junior tzitz”. Every Jew must share in the mission to perfect the world, and must be inspired to do so by wearing the priestly, regal garments which teach commitment to G-d and commitment to our nation.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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