temple emanu-el
top border
Torah Commentary
T'tzaveh (February 20, 2016)

Sherry Nehmer,


For Dignity and Adornment

This week’s parashah, T’tzaveh, recounts in extreme detail the making of an Israelite priest, as well as vivid instructions on a number of other ritualistic items and practices. In addition to presenting the procedures for the first ordination ceremony (and let’s just say they’re wildly different from the lovely ceremony performed annually here at Temple Emanu-El as new rabbis and cantors are ordained), we learn the minute details of costume and ritual that make a Hebrew priest. Precious and semi-precious stones on a richly decorated breastplate, the mysterious divination objects the urim and thummin, the fine linen wound ever so carefully into a turban, the bells and pomegranates hanging from the hem of their tunics — these garments of the kohanim, created by the finest craftsmen — “those who are skillful” — ensure that priests are recognizable immediately as separate and important — awe inspiring, even. After all, these people interact with the Divine presence on behalf of an entire people.

But one of the most touching aspects about this chapter has nothing to do with the details of dress or the instructions on the use of olive oil or the anointing of a priest’s big toe and earlobe with ram’s blood (all of which are contained in T’tzaveh). Those are things that may not make sense to us in our modern world. To me it has more to do with the fact that now that we’ve concluded chapter after chapter of the actions of Moses, leader of the Israelites, and the terrifying and miraculous events that have brought them here, our attention now is turned suddenly to Aaron, Moses’ brother, who has been by his side, although not always in sync with him, since Exodus began.

You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, and his sons,
from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests.

We already have the measure of the man. He’s made mistakes, he’s suffered fear, and he’s disagreed with Moses from time to time. But bedecked with stones on heavy shoulder pieces, a metal “breastplate of judgment,” yards of material, the collective wealth of the Hebrews, Aaron will henceforth carry the weight of his people’s history and aspirations…and also their trust. From this point on, the people will know by his priestly uniform who he is and what his function is in relation to them. For Aaron, who literally must shoulder the burden of his garments, the clothing is a metaphor for the burden he bears as priest of the Israelites. And as he looks at his sons, similarly ordained and bedecked, surely he must see an unbroken line of kohanim stretching into the distant future, his priestly descendants.

But clothes cannot make the man something he is not. Aaron’s heart is true; he bears out his duties honorably, and his magnificent clothing is nothing but a reflection of who he is inside. It’s unfortunate that we know some of his sons will not be as deserving as he. Their robes and jewels merely will act as a disguise. Their priestly garments covered in riches will not elevate them. In fact, it is they who ultimately will dishonor their garments.

It’s the man within who matters, not the reverse. We all wear our own uniforms to represent who we are or what we do, from office worker to artist to construction worker. Sometimes the clothing we choose is a kind of disguise, to make us seem what we are not. But it’s important to remember that all the baubles and fine linen and gold in the world can’t make us other than we are. It’s up to us to remain authentic, and true, to who we are.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

Back to Torah Study
photo of temple
One East 65th St., New York, New York 10065. Phone  212-744-1400
One East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065    (212) 744-1400 horizontal rule Member Log In | Calendar | Site Map | Contact Us | Text Size [+] [-]