One need not be a man of the cloth to dress to the nines


Exodus 27:20-30:10

Ezekiel 43:10-27

This week we are concerned with consecrating the priests for service within the sanctuary. The changeover from an ordinary person to a person prepared and enabled to perform the acts that lead to union and communion with the Divine begins with the creation of special garments.

God tells Moses to: “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment. Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest. These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me; they, therefore, shall receive the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen” (Exodus 28:3-5).

First, God recognizes that the priest needs to be both respected and beautiful to behold. For whom? I think for everyone — the people, the priest, and perhaps even God as well.

There is an old saying — “Clothes make the man” — which in our era of jeans and T-shirts might be even more true than it was in times past. Many of us still put on suits for important occasions: interviews, weddings, business meetings and funerals. Some of us choose special clothing for Shabbat.

There is something about dressing up that is a universal recognition of importance in time and space and the human desire to mark such events as special. We react quickly to a person’s outfit and its appropriateness for an event — “He was the only one at the bat mitzvah wearing a suit” or “I can’t believe she showed up for the wedding in flip-flops!”— and dress is coded, shaped and colored for us by society, religion and fashion.

The priests’ outfits reflected the sanctity and exaltedness of their position. They were dressed in white linen, almost surely brought from Egypt, since the process of making linen from flax and of weaving it into cloth are both time and space-consuming (not to mention trying to keep it clean in the desert!).

The main colors are those used throughout the Tabernacle: blue, purple-red and red, derived from one or possibly two species of sea snails, and the squeezed juices form the egg-bearing cochineal insect. These are labor-intensive dyes, as well as being aesthetically pleasing. The value of gold is unquestioned. Anyone looking at the priests would know that they were wearing costly and precious clothes, which signified their solemn and important role in the community.

The ceremonial aspect of dressing in these clothes surely transformed the wearer. As each layer is added, the man switches in the public eye and in his own vision of himself into the ceremonial function of the priest.

This change was needed to effect the magic of the Tabernacle — the acceptance of the people by God, the acceptance of God by the people, and the union thereof. The priest stopped being for a moment the man, and became the symbol of the whole people (with the tribes on his breast), and simultaneously the bearer of good tidings from God. The bells at the base of his robe were to remind him of his own presence, as well as to alert the unseeing people of his progress through the inner sanctum.

Lastly, the clothes were important for God. While God will take us as we come — in rags or in garments of the finest quality — there is still a way in which beauty matters to the Divine.

Coupled in this case with the kavanah, or intention, of creating a special link between Israel and God, the priest in his splendor acts as a talismanic figure, to draw the attention and power of the ineffable down to the people, and exalt both sides of the relationship.

So may we, as we don our outfits for special occasions, find ourselves hovering on the horizon connectedness and joy.

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo is the spiritual leader of Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.