Parshat Tetzave 2019
A coat of paint covers a multitude of sins, or so the saying goes. How about a regular coat? Or clothing in general? In today’s parsha, which focuses on the special (rich) garments of the high priest, our cynical minds may ask: what do these expensive garments hide?
English has an equivocal attitude toward the function of clothing while Hebrew seems to have an equivocal approach to clothing itself. If we look at the word “appear”, we find that it has two diametrically opposed meanings. It can mean “to be seen or clear” or it can mean “to seem to be,” two different entities. The word “apparent” is the same – clear or seeming (and thus not clear). Another word for clothing is apparel, that which we see or which seems, as in, clothes make the man.
In Hebrew the word for clothes (begged) also gives us bagad, which means to betray or cheat. Is this the Hebrew way of saying that clothing can belie the true nature of the person wearing the clothing?
And the word for “coat” is m’eel, whose root gives us the word for to embezzle, to take graft. Did the author of the Torah know what the fancy coats would be used for in later times, in many different religions?
The truth is, or seems to be, that at some time in our history the high priests lived up to both meanings (in Hebrew) of the words that give us “clothing.” We find that during the 400 years or so of the First Temple, there were either nine or 18 high priests (depending on which source you access). In a similar period of the Second Temple, we have either 60 or 300 high priests, again, depending on the source we reference.
What this indicates is that the high priests of the First Temple period held their posts for many years. They didn’t die when going into the Holy of Holies, and they probably carried out their duties as befitted the position.
The Second Temple period was another story. We learn from various sources that the post of High Priest went to the highest bidder, so that if a high priest managed to survive the Yom Kippur service and come out of the Holy of Holies alive, there was a good chance he wouldn’t be doing it again, because the post went to the highest bidder each year.
That’s history. We know that where there’s money there’s power, and that power attracts money. Israel is in no way innovative in that department. The history of the Catholic church is also rife with black hearted popes who wore lily-white vestments.
But if we go back to the original high priest and his clothing, we can see that the purpose of the vestments was, in part, to hide the person, to deceive the eyes, to create an illusion. And that illusion was of a man of God. It mattered but not that much what the person was like. It was not the person who was being honored (no matter what he himself might have thought). The high priest was serving the God of Israel, and as such, his representative clothes deserved to be revered by the people. The person underneath was another matter which, according to the text, was dealt with by the judge on high.
But the High Priest’s vestments symbolized something else as well. The names of the 12 tribes were inscribed on the ephod (coat) and on the breast-plate that the High Priest wore. In other words, when he stepped into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he was the mediator between God and the people, and he had to keep both sides of the covenant in mind.
Rabbi Reuven Greenvald cites Prof. Pinchas Peli on the subject:
It seems that the design of the Ephod and the breast-plate is meant to teach us a most important lesson about responsible leadership. There are many leaders, who after they are elected or chosen for high office swiftly forget the people whom they are supposed to represent. The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were to be carried on the “shoulders” of Aaron, so that he should never forget the burden of their needs and always remember that he was not carried on their shoulders … they must be constantly carried on his shoulders, to care for their needs and to be a loyal spokesman for them … He must not only carry on his shoulders that which is within his line of duty, but must also fill his heart with love and compassion for each and every one of his people.”
This is actually a description of the ideal leader, the one whose energies are directed toward serving the people rather than being served by them. This should not be seen as a radical idea in this day and age, although the examples given to us by leaders around the world do not always reflect this altruistic approach.
Another aspect of today’s focus on the priests is that they are held to a very strict pattern of behavior in their service. There is the right way – and no other way. This, of course, is impossible in a secular setting, where punishment is not meted out from on high, if at all.
All we can do is demand a higher standard from our leaders. Unfortunately, that is not enough but it is what most of us can do.
At the same time, we have to remember that as long as we, the people, know what to demand, and continue to raise these demands – even if our leaders do not always meet these demands – all is not lost.