Dressing for Honor and Splendor

Parashat Tetzaveh 5781 / פרשת תְּצַוֶּה
Torah Portion: Exodus 27:20-30:10

We learn in this week’s Torah portion that what we “wear” matters. It matters because our clothing says something about how we see ourselves in relation to God and the people around us.

We read in Parashat Tetzaveh, “God says to Moses, ‘V’asita vigdei-kodesh l’Aharon achicha l’chavod u’l’tiferet. Make sacral vestments for your brother, Aaron, for honor and splendor’” (Ex. 28:2).

In looking at the words, kavod and tiferet, honor and splendor, two medieval biblical commentators, Nachmanides (1194-1270) and Sforno (1475-1550), argue across the centuries about for whose benefit these vestments are to be created. Nachmanides says, “to honor the Kohanim, the High Priest, for these garments were similar to the garb of royalty.” Sforno, on the other hand, says “the vestments were for the glory of God and to lend splendor to the Kohen Gadol as the teacher of the nation, so that he would be revered by the tribes, whose names he bore on his breast and shoulders.” (Stone Edition Humash, p. 465). 

I believe there’s truth in each of these interpretations, but I also believe the garments were intended to glorify the People of Israel. In addition to showing honor and casting splendor upon God and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), these vestments also show honor to the community who helped fashion them. After all, they are the ones who contributed the gold, the gems, and yarns that went into its creation, and it was the wisest and most creative of the people who actually assembled the items into a magnificent uniform for the Kohen Gadol. Additionally, by wearing these special vestments Aaron would have been mindful of the central role he played in connecting the people to God and God to the people. With such a burden upon his shoulder, could he not help but feel the utmost respect for the People of Israel?

Now, imagine that you are Aaron, the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. You are adorned in the finery that has been sanctified for service to God and Israel. How would wearing these vestments affect the way you see yourself in relation to God and the community? This not an entirely theoretical question, for we are taught that we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As such, is it not incumbent upon each of us to don the High Priest’s garb, if not physically then metaphorically?

In our role as priests, we are to wrap ourselves not in fine linen, gold and gems but in those human attributes that give glory to the Divine, that do honor to ourselves as partners with God in creation, and that show reverence for the community of humanity of which we are a part. What are these attributes? Kindness, compassion, love for our neighbor, a yearning for justice, and the passion and willingness to act to make the world whole. These are the garb of our priesthood in today’s world.

As we conjure up images of Aaron and his sons entering the Holy of Holies adorned in the magnificent robes and accessories we read about in this week’s Torah portion, let us realize that we are inheritors of a tradition of showing up dressed and ready to do the work of God and humanity. May we, too, adorn ourselves in kavod and tiferet — honor and splendor — for the sacred work that awaits us each and every day.

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