True humility balances self-worth with modesty

Exodus 27:20-30:10

Ezekiel 43:10-27

by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner

Do clothes make the man? This week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, actually addresses this idea and concludes that to some extent they do.

In Tetzaveh, Moses is commanded by G-d to "make holy garments for your brother, Aaron, for glory and majesty." When studying these "holy garments" worn by the first high priest, Aaron, one comes to an inescapable understanding that external beauty plays a significant part in Judaism if only as a means to an end. It can enable us to better serve G-d or at least to attain the best state of mind to do so.

The Ibn Ezra states that the Torah demanded that the high priest's clothing be distinct, to set him apart, to show his spiritual superiority. The commentary Haamek Davar explains: When G-d commanded Aaron to consecrate himself and to behave with saintliness and abstinence, he became separate from the rest of the nation. For this to happen, Aaron had to command the respect of his people and they had to truly understand that he was on a higher spiritual plane than they. His separation must not be viewed as mere pomposity.

The priestly garments had to be "glorious and majestic" so that the Jews would fully understand and appreciate that G-d, Himself wished to honor Aaron because he was worthy of being a "chariot" for the Divine Presence. The garments were a vehicle to make the Jews aware of the supreme importance of spiritual institutions.

The Chinuch, however, views the necessity of these majestic garments not so much as a tool for the benefit of the nation as for the high priest himself. They were to be a means of ensuring that he was always in the proper state of mind when conducting the Temple service. The high priest was a messenger sent to atone for the people. This necessitated his focusing all of his thoughts entirely on the service. His special clothing, the Chinuch teaches, was designed so that whatever part of his body he looked at would cause him to remember before Whom he stood.

The priestly garments then were both to invest the high priest with an aura of sovereignty and to cause him to feel his insignificance in the presence of the Almighty.

Rabbenu Bachya explains the little golden bells decorating the hem of the priestly cloak were a means to announce Aaron's approaching. It was a kind of prototype for every individual as he enters the palace of a human king. Courtesy and respect demand that he give notice of his arrival and not enter suddenly and unexpectedly. We find, for example, in Megillot Esther that any subject who dared to approach King Ahasuerus without permission might be put to death.

The high priest was to maintain a deep consciousness of submission before the King of Kings, the golden bells on his cloak a constant reminder of this submission. On the other hand, we have seen that his garments were meant to invest him with all the splendor of royalty and a deep sense of the greatness of the task he was fulfilling.

It is difficult to contemplate how the high priest was able to reconcile these two approaches suggested by the ceremonial garments and to follow them simultaneously as was his obligation. He was to feel the greatness and pride of his position as one set apart and exalted and at the same time to feel one of the people and utter humility, without any particular status before G-d.

It was the task of Aaron to cultivate in the midst of great splendor a heart of humility and submission before the Almighty — a task that seems almost impossible.

An understanding of true humility may enable us to accept that it is possible to be proud and humble at the same time. The root of true humility is never a belittling or denying the gifts we have been given. That is more in keeping with false modesty. True humility requires an honest and sincere acknowledgment that the credit for these gifts is due entirely to G-d. All praise that is given man is misplaced and should only induce a feeling of greater humility.

The qualities of humility and self-effacement are personified in the figure of the high priest entering the sanctuary in all of the pomp and majesty of his ceremonial robes, which at every moment sounded the little bells of modesty and submission. Learning to divine our place in the world vis-à-vis our fellow man and vis-à-vis the Almighty may be a lifelong task but a worthwhile pursuit to be sure.

Shabbat Shalom