Image: Colorful clothes hanging in a closet. (Maridav/Shutterstock All rights reserved.)
וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃
Make holy vestments for your brother Aaron for dignity and adornment. – Exodus 28:2
Clothing is an important social symbol. We dress to send messages about ourselves and about our feelings regarding the place or the people we will visit. We dress to fit in or to stand out. We often feel anxious about our clothing. Too fancy? Not fancy enough? Wrong kind of fancy? Does it fit? Is it clean? Is it new? Is it “me” or “not me?”
And then there are uniforms: clothing that sends an impersonal, public message. Doctors wear white coats. Police wear blue uniforms. In this Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, we get the directions for the uniform of the High Priest of Israel. God instructs Moses to produce an entire wardrobe: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen pants. Inside the breastplate are supposed to be something called ummim and thummim, which the priest will use to find answers to questions.
The outfit was colorful and some things about it are mysterious to us today (ephod, ummim and thummim, for instance.) The text doesn’t explain those words because it assumes we know what they are.
A careful reader will notice that the uniform mixes linen and wool threads, something we are forbidden to do in ordinary garments. This is a way of expressing the extraordinary nature of these clothes: they are what the high priest will wear in the presence of the Holy One.
I imagine Aaron was very nervous when he heard about this uniform. He may also have felt somewhat confused when he heard what he was going to do in that fancy outfit. The kohanim [priests] had many tasks, but the most common task was to sheckt [slaughter] the animals for the sacrifices, then cut them into pieces and stack the pieces on the altar. They tended the sacrificial fires and then carried out the ashes when the fire was finished.
In other words, Aaron was going to do some of the bloodiest, filthiest work imaginable in that fancy outfit!
The 16th century commentator Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno explained the purpose of these clothes from the verse at the top of this entry. He writes that the splendor of the uniform was to render honor to God. Secondly:
The priest should inspire awe among the Israelites who are all considered his disciples seeing he had the names of all the tribes engraved on these garments right opposite his heart when he wore them in his official capacity. – Sforno on Ex. 28:2
The garments were to give honor to God, and an inspiration to God’s people. Their friend Aaron would disappear into this uniform and take on the role of Kohen Gadol, High Priest of Israel. From here on in the Torah, there are two Aarons: one is the Kohen Gadol, who fulfills the role of his office and provides a link to the Holy. He puts aside personal feelings just as he put aside his personal clothing. We will see this most sharply in the opening verses of Leviticus 10, when his sons die violently while offering a sacrifice, and “Aaron is silent.”
The other Aaron, the private Aaron, is the human being who wept in his tent later. He made mistakes (big mistakes – see the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 and the episode with his sister Miriam in Numbers 12.) Being Kohen Gadol was a heavy job because he was suspended between the public role and the private self. Someone had to be in charge of the sacrifices. Someone had to be the visible link to the God of Israel. Aaron was given that task, and we do not know how he felt about it.
Do you wear a uniform in your work? Do you have a public, professional persona that sometimes has to suspend personal feelings for the public good? What do you do to “let down your hair” and relax? How do you care for the the private self that has to wear the professional role?