Rabbi Shai Finkelstein
Former Rosh Kollel in Memphis (2000-2005)
Currently Senior Rabbi at the Baron Hirsch Congregation in Memphis
The making of the priestly vestments is one of the major topics in the parsha. The Torah specifies a few aspects regarding them. The first aspect is that the priestly vestments should be for “glory and beauty.” The second is that the Kohan is prohibited from serving in the Temple without wearing them. Third, according to one opinion in the Talmud, the priestly vestments are the tool that makes a Kohan eligible to serve in the Temple. The final aspect is that according to the Talmud, Zevichim 88b, the priestly vestments have an enigmatic power of atonement, very much like sacrifices. All those aspects raise the following question, what is the secret of the priestly vestments? Why are they such a crucial component of the Temple service?
I would like to suggest two different schools of thought. The first is that the priestly vestments fill two distinct purposes. The first purpose is to show our respect to Hashem and His servants by making them beautiful clothing. These vestments are bought by the public, who demonstrate their appreciation to the Kohanim. At the same time, with all the beauty and the glory of these vestments, they are also called ‘bigdai kodesh’ – holy vestments. These clothes receives an additional component of holiness as their purpose is to serve the holy Temple. The Kohanim teach us how to take these beautiful vestments and transform them into holy vestments. This transformation is done as a result of the power that is being entrusted to the Kohanim by the entire nation, who views the Kohanim as their messengers. In a way, the Kohen loses his own personal identity and becomes the nation’s agent. The priestly vestments are given not to a specific Kohen but rather to ‘The Priesthood’, whose mission it is to serve the entire nation. According to this idea, we understand the emphasis on the priestly vestments. It is not only about glory, splendor and beauty but rather the essence of priesthood.
The second idea is that when we explore the concept of clothing in the Tanach, we find that this concept is mentioned several times. For example, Adam and Eve, Esau, Elijah, and also in Megilat Esther. The idea of clothing has dual meaning. On one hand it can help us conceal our true identity and pretend that we are someone else. On the other hand, the first clothing that was given to human beings was given by Hahsem, who gave it to Adam and Eve after they committed the first sin. When Hahsem gave clothes to humankind, He meant to give us a challenge; to take a material that can help us hide and to transform it into something that will help radiate our inner identity and personality. One of the reasons we merited being redeemed from Egypt, according to the Midrash, was that the Jewish people did not change the way they dressed. The meaning of it is that the Jewish people were able to maintain their identity, faith and values. The priestly vestments should be influenced by the Kohen’s personality and from the entire Jewish nation. When the Kohen performs his duty, he must detach his individual personality and become both Hahsem’s agent and the agent of the Jewish people at the same time, intertwining them into one.
This process elevates the Kohen and his service from a meta-halachic point of view, as a sacrifice that brings atonement, closeness and attachment between Hahsem and the Jewish people. The priestly vestments are not an external detail to the Temple service, but rather a major and crucial part of the service.
This message is very relevant to all of us as often we put clothing on ourselves and pretend that we are someone else, with a different identity. We must know that our mission should be to use our clothing in order to bring out our inner personality, and not to let external appearances define who we are. Our inner strength is the determining factor of our connection to Torah and Hashem and His people. This message is even more important to our children. In our modern society, our children are even more exposed to many external influences, different clothing, different methods, and we must give our children the tools to build inner strength, determination and passion for our tradition, so they will be able to shine their inner Jewish identity in a very complicated society. We as parents and teachers must not only make sure that our children receive a Jewish education, but we at home, as parents, must show our children that we ourselves are committed to our true identity.