“You shall make garments of sanctity for Aharon, your brother, for glory and for splendor.”
In this week’s parsha, we learn about the requirement that the Kohanim wear the priestly garments while performing the holy service. Approximately forty verses meticulously describe these garments, including their colors, materials, and how they are to be worn.
The Rambam writes: “There is a positive commandment to fashion the garments for the Kohen to serve in … And a Kohen Gadolwho served without … or a Kohen Hediot (i.e., a lay Kohen) who served without, … his service is disqualified, and he deserves to die Biyedei Shamayim (lit., at the Hands of Heaven), like a zar (i.e., someone who is not a Kohen) who served. As it says: ‘You shall girdle them with an avneit … and the Kehunah shall be for them.’”
In other words, the garments themselves give the Kohanim their priestly status. Without the garments, it is as if they are notKohanim.
The Rambam continues, in the name of Chazal, and states: “When the garments are upon them, their Kehunah is upon them. When the garments are not upon them, their Kehunah is not upon them!”
This idea is very difficult to understand. Can it be that Kehunah is dependent upon a garment?
Furthermore, this statement is even more surprising in light of Chazal’s explanation of the verse: “And he smelled the fragrance of his garments”. When Yitzchak attempts to determine if it is Yaakov or Esav who is standing before him, he smells the garments that Yaakov is wearing in order to masquerade as Esav. Chazal emphasize that the phrase “his garments” (“begadav”) is equivalent to the phrase “his perfidy” (“bogdav”)! In other words, the garments cover up the hidden truth.
Purim is approaching in a few days. As we all know, it is customary to dress up in costumes on this holiday. One reason behind this custom is that we learn from the miracle of Purim that the obvious is not necessarily real and the invisible may actually exist. For instance, Hashem’s name does not appear in the Megilah, but Hashem is clearly active throughout the narrative. Similarly, Mordechai ordered Esther not to reveal her nationality, etc. In short, the goal of masquerading is to remind us that there is more to the truth than that which meets the eye.
Hence, it becomes even harder to comprehend the Kohanim’s requirement to wear their special clothing while performing the holy service. The Rambam does explain that the goal is to “honor the Name that dwells among you”. Nevertheless, it seems that this law calls for further elucidation.
If we go back and examine Megilat Esther, we will recall the climactic chapter where the King can not fall asleep. He listens as he is read to from his archives, and he discovers that Mordechai saved his life but was not yet rewarded. At that exact moment, Haman appears in the courtyard. The King asks Haman what should be done for the man whom the King wants to honor. We are all familiar with Haman’s reply, but, in fact, his response is very strange. Haman recommends that the man be dressed in the King’s clothes, be carried on the King’s horse, and be adorned with the King’s crown. At first glance, this recommendation seems to be degrading to the King. After all, he is asked to transfer his garments and crown to another. In fact, Haman’s suggestion reeks of open rebellion!
Surprisingly, however, the King does not hesitate and immediately accepts Haman’s recommendation. According to those who believe that the King was a fool, this behavior makes sense. However, there is an additional opinion in Chazal whereby the King was actually wise. If so, why would he agree to Haman’s suggestion?
In order to answer this question, we must delve deeper into the concept of clothing. On one hand, clothing can disguise the internal self. Yet, at the same time, clothes are a reflection of an external image. For example, a sports team’s uniform is meant to blur any differences between team members. Each individual appears identical. Thus, on an internal, personal plane, clothing signifies concealment. However, in terms of the relationship between a part and the whole, there is an element of unification and obliteration of the individual with respect to the entire group.
In the case of the Megilah, there is an expression of esteem and a desire to resemble an important figure. The King understands that Haman wishes to only emulate the King but not to take his place. Rather than conveying contempt for the King, Haman’s proposal shows that he admires the King and identifies with him. Therefore, the King readily acquiesces to Haman’s suggestion. In effect, the King feels that Haman is saying that a person can reach no higher level than external resemblance to the King. Obviously, the way to achieve this lofty plane is to dress identically to the King.
We can thus conclude that on a personal level, clothing is meant to conceal and obscure. But in terms of individuals within a group setting, clothes can either distinguish between them or merge them into one cohesive unit by erasing their differences.
Now we can grasp the Kohanim’s unique commandment. In essence, the Kohanim are servants. As Rashi notes, servant (“mesharet”) is from the same root as service (“sherut”). A servant must diminish himself with respect to the mission and to the dispatcher. If a Kohen has irrelevant or improper thoughts while bring a korban, he disqualifies the Avodah. The Kohen can not be himself during the Avodah. He must cancel himself out with respect to his responsibilities. Therefore, only when the Kohanim are wearing the priestly garments, does the Shechinah dwell among them. Only these specific garments can reduce the Kohanim in relation to their Avodah.