THE COHEN'S NEW CLOTHES
Rabbi David Walk
What's with all the emphasis on the sartorial splendor of the Cohen Gadol? I mean that I don't care that much what my religious leaders wear. Maybe if I were a Sephardi, like one of my daughters, I'd prefer my rabbis in gowns and turbans, but not me. I'm not even happy with the uniformity of Roshei Yeshiva in black frock coats and wide brimmed hats. But that's just me. However, the world at large has been moving towards more informality. Think about nuns and how they've lost that penguin look over the years. And, yay for dress down days! Anyway, in this week's Torah reading we are told, 'These are the garments they are to make: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. They are to make these sacred garments for your brother Aharon and his sons, so they may serve me as priests (Exodus 28:4).' The Torah goes on for another 40 verses detailing the materials and specifics of these glad rags. So, this week let's discuss the relative merits of this garb, but, more importantly, why this is such an important issue that it takes up so much Torah space.
A few weeks ago in this space (Parshat Shmot: Prophets & Losses) I discussed the relative merits of prophets and priests, and I quoted from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OBM, 'The cohen's role is to guard the rituals fastidiously…The guiding principle of his service is to provide routine and regularity…In contrast, the prophet's primary role is to bring down fiery new messages from above. His role is to induce change.' The uniform reinforces that conservative position. This is similarly true for most functionaries who wear uniforms or robes of office. What's true of the more mundane posts like guards, police, firemen and postal workers is equally emblematic of the more exalted offices like judges and generals. And each wears the insignia of their responsibility. Especially in the military, a knowledgeable observer can readily ascertain a soldier's unit and function.
So, too, the Cohen Gadol is immediately recognized as the head of the Divine service which takes place in the Holy Temple. However, his insignia tell us so much more. The High Priest wears the straps of his tunic-like apron over his shoulders. Upon these suspenders are epaulettes with the names of the twelve tribes. The verb used to describe this is naso or 'bear'. The Midrash connects this to God bearing our sins, and reinforces the priests' role in the repentance process, but it can be taken more literally to mean that he actually is carrying the nation and its fate upon his shoulders. For the same reason he wears the names of the twelve tribes on the stones of the breastplate which covers his heart. Perhaps we can add the tzitz or golden forehead piece which is inscribed with the words kadosh l'hashem, 'holy to God', which symbolizes bearing God's presence within the community.
Therefore, on one plane of meaning the priestly raiment is quite logical. But there's a problem. The verse states: Whenever Aharon enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastplate of decision (choshen mishpat) as a continuing memorial before the Lord. Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastplate, so they may be over Aharon's heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord. Thus Aharon will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord (28:29-30). This is the basis for the tradition that people could ask questions of God through the breastplate. Doesn't that smack of the kind of soothsaying and divining which we find so reprehensible? Well, I would think yes, if it were used, God forbid, like a Ouija board. I believe the Divine guidance was more complicated. Divine inspiration (not straight answers) can be accessed if the garments are worn correctly.
How are clothes worn correctly? This is a critical question to be asked about the Cohen Gadol. To understand the question correctly we must understand that there are two words in Hebrew for 'wear'. One is bagad, like the word begged for article of clothing. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that we know this word from other sources. He explains, 'the Hebrew word for "garment," begged, also means "betrayal" (as in the confession, Ashamnu, bagadnu)…And can be instruments of deception and betrayal.' However, we also have the word levush. This word is used to describe how we are able to perceive God in this world. We see this in Psalm 93: The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty and splendor; The Lord has clothed and encircled Himself with strength (Psalms 93:1). This is the Psalm for Friday and we recite it as we welcome Shabbat and clothe ourselves with the raiment of our holy day. When the purpose of the clothes is to hide and camouflage the person's real feelings and intent we use the word begged, but when the purpose of the garment is to let us see and understand the inner reality of the wearer, we use the word levush.
When the Cohen Gadol truly embodies the sanctity of his position as spiritual representative of this world before God, then these garments can help him to identify God's will and they light the path to correct action for him and the nation. However, when venality motivates the office holder, these clothes cannot guide him or the nation. In Judaism the clothes don't make the man, but they can display and enhance his true integrity.
So, too, with us our outer appearance can be a symbol of sincerity and reliability, or a sham. The Torah expends so much space on these outer trappings because of what they can accomplish within society. They can inspire and impress, or they can disappoint and disillusion. It's up to the Cohen
Gadol, and what beats within the heart and soul of the wearer of the Cohen's new clothes.