For centuries, popular and academic figures including such luminaries as Homer, William Shakespeare and Mark Twain have observed in various forms that ”clothes make the man.” The clothes that women and men wear often are the product of how they view themselves personally and professionally. And of course, it also affects the way others view them as well.
Our Torah and tradition recognize this fact as the portion of Tetzaveh spends a good deal of time describing the intricate clothing to be worn by the Kohane Gadol (the high priest) as well as the other priests, the kohanim. Each article of clothing was to be made by artistic designers and fabricators charged with fashioning the ephod/apron made of gold, blue, purple and scarlet along with bejeweled shoulder straps. Jewelers and artisans were charged with creating the breastplate — which was worn by the high priest — with four rows of precious stones, one stone for each of the tribes. Among the various items that the high priest would wear included golden bells and pomegranates of yarn all around the hem of his robe that would make a sound as he would enter and exit the sanctuary before the Lord.
As one can imagine, there was a difference of opinion among our ancient rabbis as to the design and purpose of the pomegranates and bells, not to mention how the failure to wear all or certain of the articles of clothing could lead to the priest’s death. That particular argument certainly has a connection to the story of Purim as well. In the Megillah of Esther, one of the underlying premises is that Esther could not approach the king without having been summoned on punishment of death. Esther fasts and then risks her life by approaching King Ahasuerus without invitation. Much like the story of Esther, the high priest has to announce his presence before God by the sound of the bells as he enters the sanctuary — and the failure to do so risks his life.
But as much as the bells announced the Kohane’s presence to God, they served another purpose as well. They were also a reminder to the high priest of the special nature of the worship and work in which he was involved. He was reminded of the holy nature of what he was doing and that as a result he was required to carry himself a certain way. He was required to act in accordance with the special nature of his intricate and jeweled vestments.
The clothes were of a regal nature as well. The person who wore them easily could have felt like a monarch, all-powerful and supreme. And yet the little bells and pomegranates on his clothes reminded him that he was not all powerful. Instead, he was accountable and subservient to the Source of the clothes he was wearing. While the ensemble he wore may have boosted his self-esteem, the bells were humbling. While the clothes reminded others of his close connection to God, they reminded him of his position as agent of God, acting only at God’s direction.
This is a theme we see elsewhere in the Torah, when a new king was required to have his own personal Torah with him whenever he went to war or sat in judgment. He was to read it all his life and become familiar with the teachings. According to the Torah, the king would have this personal Torah written for him by the Levites; but according to the Talmud, the king actually was required to write it himself and keep it with him at all times. He was to use it as a reference, not just for the laws and beliefs included therein, but as a reminder of his true status, powerful, yet still subservient to the laws of a much higher authority.
For the Kohane Gadol, the clothes truly made the man. They established the unique and powerful nature of his position and confirmed it for all to see. Yet at the same time, the clothes reminded him and demonstrated to the people what he stood for and who he served, just as the Torah did for a new king of Israel.
And if a priest or a king is required to recognize his power as not self-derived, but as coming from God, how much more so is it for the average person? Our status, success, and achievements are never ours alone. We can never forget where our gifts come from. We may not have bells to wear on our clothing, but we have other ways — including regular prayer, study, and acts of lovingkindness — that teach us and remind us always of who we are and what our true status is in the world around us. It is not through the clothes we wear, the houses we own or the jobs we have. It is through humility and gratitude that even the most powerful and successful understand their real status in this world. PJC
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer is the rabbi of Adat Shalom Congregation.