"And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother, for honor and for glory."
The Torah, after completing the description of the Mishkan and its furnishings in last week's parasha, turns in this week's parasha to a detailed description of the priestly garments to be worn by Aharon and his sons. The two parshiyot actually open in very similar ways. When the Torah commands the building of the Mishkan, it not only commands that it must be done, but also states the purpose that it is meant to achieve: "And you shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell in your midst." (Shemot 25:8). In parallel, the Torah here not only commands that the priestly garments be made, but also their purpose: "And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother for honor and for glory." (Shemot 28:3). However, this purpose itself requires explanation - why, we may ask, is it necessary for the Kohanim to be clothed in honor and glory? Why not wear humble clothes that communicate humility, or simple clean clothes that communicate simplicity? Why are such rich clothes necessary?
On the face of it, it would seem that such rich garments are consistent with the general décor of the Mishkan, the use of gold and silver and rich fabrics which themselves communicated wealth and majesty. Although, of course, this just broadens the question: Why was the entire Mishkan - its structure, its furnishings, and the clothing of its Kohanim - so focused on such trivial externals? Shouldn't the message of the House of God be that God cares not about the externals, not what a person wears or how wealthy he or she is, but about who they are on the inside, what they really stand for? "For man sees with his eyes, but God sees into the heart." (Shmuel I, 16:7).
This question is a truly challenging one, and undoubtedly part of the answer lies in striking a balance between what will impact people given where they are, and how to bring people to where they should be. Although we should look beyond superficialities, and teach ourselves not to be impressed by them, part of our human nature is to be impacted at a visceral level by externals. How a person looks impacts what we think of them. How a place or building looks impacts on our estimation of it and its function. The beauty of the Mishkan was to impress people with the grandeur and majesty of a house of God, to instill in them the proper sense of the awe in their relationship to God. The paradox is, that once one internalizes this awe, and understands how elevated, how infinitely different, God is from the physical world, one should then be propelled to be more like God, and learn to not be swayed by externals and shows of wealth, but by things of true value - by character, by commitment, by righteousness, by kindness. The opulence of the Mishkan - like, Rambam might add, the very phenomenon of any physical place for God - was necessary to reach the people where they were, so that they could be elevated to where they needed to be, and it had to somehow to do that without reinforcing the values that it was working to move people from.
The beauty of the priestly garments was then part and parcel of the opulence of the Mishkan, and the deeper message of where true value lies would have to remain unstated and only - hopefully - inferred. However, a closer look reveals that the garments were not all about beauty and wealth. While Aharon's priestly garments, the garments of the Kohen Gadol, were made with threads of gold, crimson, sky blue, and royal purple wool, while Aharon had a gold band on his forehead, and a breastplate adorned with precious and semiprecious stones, the garments of his son - the garments for all regular Kohanim - were unadorned and were made of simple linen (cf. Shemot 39:27-29). The clothes of the regular Kohanim, then, were of the utmost simplicity: an undergarment (mikhnasayim), a simple tunic (kutonet), a simple hat (migbaat), and a belt (avnet) - essentially the clothing that we identify today - li'havdil - with that of a monk.
The Kohanim served as living models of what it means for a person to be close to God and to dedicate his or her life to God, and through their clothes they embodied the ideal of this service, the ideal of simplicity and humility. At the same time, the house of God and the Kohen Gadol - the one man who entered into to the Holy of Holies, the place of God's Glory - through the opulence of their appearance, expressed and embodied God's majesty, and instilled in the people a sense of God's greatness, a feeling of awe and a feeling of reverence.
Seen this way, the garments were instrumental in shaping the perception of the people, the non-Kohanim, who came to the Mishkan and witnessed them. However, the Torah implies that the clothes were important for the Kohanim themselves: "And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother and his sons to minister (li'khahano, to serve as a Kohen) to Me." (Shemot 28:4). The clothes were necessary to allow them to serve as Kohanim, not just to make an impression on the people. And, indeed, the Gemara (Zevachim 17b) states that "When their garments are not upon them, then their kehuna, their status as Kohanim (vis-à-vis the Temple), is no longer upon them." The Kohanim, then, could not serve unless they were properly dressed for the job. How one dresses affects not only how others think of us and of what we do, but also how we think of ourselves, and how we relate to the nature and importance of our activities. As job applicants are always told when going on a job interview, "Dress as you would for the job itself." One does not dress like an executive if one is applying to be a carpenter, and one does not dress like a carpenter if one is applying to be an executive. When we dress in a certain way we tell ourselves, as well as others, who we are and what it is that we are doing.
Thus, the Sefer HaChinukh states that the Kohanim were commanded to wear the priestly garments to shape their own self-perception:
From the reasons of this mitzvah, is the foundation that is established for us that a person is impacted according to his actions, and his thoughts and intentions will follow these actions. Now the agent who is achieving atonement (for others) must focus all of his thoughts and intentions towards the service. Thus, it is fitting for him to clothe himself garments that are dedicated to this service, so that when he looks at any place on his body, he will immediately remember and awaken in his heart an awareness before Whom he serves....
(Sefer HaChinukh, Mitzvah 99)
Clearly there is a lesson here for us as well. How we dress communicates a great deal to the larger world -sometimes accurately, sometimes inaccurately - about who we are. But perhaps more importantly, it also communicates to us ourselves - consciously or unconsciously - how we see ourselves. How do we dress on a daily basis? Do we dress sloppily, and communicate to ourselves that we do not deserve care and attention, or do we dress nicely, telling ourselves that as a human being, as one created in the image of God, as a person with infinite potential, we deserve proper care and respect? Rambam, in two places (Laws of Avoda Zara 11:1 and Laws of Character Traits 5:11) states that a person must dress in a way that accurately reflects his or her commitments, values, and activities and understanding of self-worth. Dressing in such a way, I would add, is just as important for oneself as it is for others.
There are ways to dress Jewishly and ways to totally blend in with the larger society. When we dress Jewishly, we tell other people that we are Jewish and we stand for Jewish values and commitments, but we often fail to acknowledge that same message ourselves. There are times when I have acted in ways that I feel are not becoming of how a Jew should act, and if it was in front of other people, and they saw me with my kippa, then I am concerned about a possible chilul HaShem that I may have caused. But if I had been more aware that I was wearing the kippa in the first place, had I been fully conscious that I stood for what it means to be a Jew, then I probably would not have acted as I had to begin with. Not because I would have been afraid of the chilul HaShem, but because I would have told myself that I cannot act that way, because that is not who I am, that is not how a Jew acts.
We recently read in the daf yomi, the gemara in Zevachim (88b) that, after almost 90 pages in exploring the details of animal sacrifices and how such sacrifices achieve atonement, tells us that the priestly garments achieve atonement just as the sacrifices do. This is a very difficult statement for at least sacrifices require a giving of one's property and a high degree of attending to details, communicating the message that atonement requires serious effort and is not easily won. But what are we to make of the fact that the priest is wearing his garments achieves atonement, without any effort on the part of the sinner? I believe that the answer is that it is not the mere wearing of these garments by the Kohen that is critical, but the internalizing of their message and the emulating of this practice by the sinner. If one dresses and comports oneself in a way that communicates to him- or herself who they are and what they stand for, they won't sin in the first place. Learning how to prevent sinning in the future is at least as important of an act of teshuva as agonizing over the past sin. Indeed, the priestly garments atone just as the sacrifices atone, and in the absence of a Temple and sacrifices, we can still embody the ideal of the priestly garments by attending to how we dress and comport ourselves, and to the messages that we thereby send to others and send to ourselves.