The breastplate/choshen of the High Priest was ordained to be securely attached to the ceremonial apron/ephod that covered the body of the High Priest. The Torah specifically mentions that the breastplate/choshen should not be allowed to slide away from that apron/ephod. The commentators to Torah discuss the significance of this rule. Why is it so important that the breastplate/choshen should remain attached to the apron/ephod while the High Priest is wearing the priestly garments? What is the moral message that the Torah wishes to impart to us by this requirement?
Again, the answers to these questions and the observations of the great sages of Israel over the ages are varied and many. I have always felt that the Torah is imparting a message to us, that the spiritual side of humans – the breastplate/choshen that rests upon the heart, the seat of human emotion and spirit – is inextricably bound up with the bodily and physical needs and demands of the human body itself as represented by the apron/ephod.
The two garments, the breastplate/choshen and the apron/ephod, like our souls and bodies during our lifetimes are inseparable. The two opposites – of spirit and physicality are meant to balance and influence each other. A human being cannot, in this world, be wholly physical, for, if so, one is little more than an animal. Nor can humans achieve a fully spiritual state of existence, for God said to Moses that “no humans can see me and live.” It is the integration of these two human traits that creates the main challenge in our lives and eventually defines us as a Jew and as a human being.
The Torah abhors schizophrenic behavior. The old slogan of the Haskala: “Be a Jew at home and a regular person/citizen in the street” proved to be an unattainable goal. Either the Jew at home had to give way, which is what most often happened, or the man in the street had to defer to the homegrown Jew.
The Torah therefore wished to create a whole person who would be comfortable with one’s Jewishness and mission both at home and in the street. All Jews, not only the High Priest, have to wear the breastplate/choshen attached to the apron/ephod; to combine within one and the same person a physical existence and a spiritual one as well.
The numerous commandments that the Torah ordains for our performance in all facets of our lives are meant to help us create a whole unified person for ourselves. We are to sanctify the mundane and create spirit where apparently only physicality exists. And, at the same time, the fact is that in our lifetime we are of this world with all of the physical limitations that this fact of human existence imposes upon us.
This duality of purpose and existence is itself the secret of human society and points to the eternal necessity for God’s guidance and Torah blessings. In following His tenets we find our whole – inner and outer – self. In this way we are all entitled to wear the garments of the High Priest both at home and in the street all the days of our lives.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com