Between the Lines—Tetzavvah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Babylonian Talmud Masekhet Zevachim 88b

ואמר רבי עיניני בר ששון: מה קרבנות מכפרין, אף בגדי כהונה מכפרין. כתונת מכפרת על שפיכות דם, שנאמר: (בראשית לז) וישחטו שעיר עזים ויטבלו את הכתנת בדם. מכנסים מכפרת על גילוי עריות, שנאמר: (שמות כח) ועשה להם מכנסי בד [לכסות (את) בשר ערוה]. מצנפת מכפרת על גסי הרוח. מנין? אמר רבי חנינא: יבא דבר שבגובה ויכפר על גובה. אבנט מכפר על הרהור הלב, היכא דאיתיה. חושן מכפר על הדינין, שנא׳: (שמות כח) ועשית חושן משפט.. מעיל מכפר על לשון הרע. מנין? א״ר חנינא: יבא דבר שבקול ויכפר על קול הרע


R. 'Inyani b. Sasson also said: . . . just as sacrifices make atonement, so do the priestly vestments make atonement. The tunic atones for bloodshed, for it is said, [Then they took Joseph's tunic,] slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood (Gen. 37:31). The breeches atoned for lewdness, as it is said, You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness . . . (Exod. 28:42). The headdress atones for arrogance. How do we know it? R. Hanina said: Let something placed above the head come and atone for haughtiness. The girdle atoned for ruminations of the heart, hence where it was placed. The breastplate atoned for [neglect of] civil laws, as it is said, You shall make a breastplate of judgment . . . (Exod. 28:15). The robe atoned for slander. How do we know it? R. Hanina said: Let something with sound (the robe's bells) come and atone for the evil noise (of slander).

I recall first grasping the wise adage that "the clothes make the man" in a dressing room at the Kennedy Center between acts of the Washington Opera's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. After performing as a peasant child in the chorus, I needed to change quickly into the opulent regal attire for my other role as Tsareyvitch—the tsar's son. Exchanging my drab brown clothing for a multicolored outfit of silk, sequins, and rhinestones completely shifted my sense of self and purpose.

I share this anecdote in trying to imagine what Aaron's transformation from freed slave to high priest must have entailed. In order to serve as Israel's intermediary with God in worship, Aaron would regularly swap his ordinary clothing for the elaborate costume outlined in this week's Torah portion. The midrash above depicts each part of that outfit as a symbolic parallel to the various human shortcomings that give rise to transgression and, therefore, the need for repentance and atonement. The Israelites depended on Aaron to dress and to act as prescribed in order to maintain their relationship with God.

My wardrobe as a rabbi, however, includes none of the ceremonial articles mentioned in this midrash, whose ancient authors likewise lacked these items. Their comparison of the priestly vestments and sacrifices in the aftermath of Temple-based Judaism asserts that those conventions still have much to teach us as Rabbinic Jews about our devotion to God through ethical behavior and spiritual integrity. Moreover, this midrash invites us to imbue with new meaning the ritual garb we have preserved through the centuries. I consciously don a kippah to identify myself publicly as an observant Jew, yet my tallit katan remains underneath my clothing, hidden from view, to remind me of the duties that result from our people's covenant with God. Only I can perceive this sacred undergarment, just as I alone can discern my unique role in the ongoing drama of Creation.