Why are the clothing of the Kohain Gadol – High Priest and those of the standard Kohain described in such detail in this week’s Parsha?
The garments serve an important function in fostering our relationship with G-d and therefore must be described in detail. However, why did G-d place such an importance on the clothing of the Kohanim to begin with? What intrinsic value is there is there to the clothing, and what lessons can we learn from them?
Clothing was first introduced into society after Adam and Chava sinned with the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, the story of their sinning is bracketed between two references to clothing. 1) (Ber.2:25) “And Adam and his wife were naked” 2) (Ber. 3:21) “G-d made garments of leather and He clothed them.” The Torah was contrasting the changes in G-d’s relationship with Adam and Chava before they sinned with after they had sinned. Before they sinned they did not have to wear clothing and after they had sinned they had to wear clothing.
Clothing appears to be a consequence for the sin of having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. The rule of thumb regarding consequences is that G-d’s consequences always serve to rehabilitate and correct not merely to punish. Therefore, the need to wear clothing is in some way associated with protecting us from further sinning and correcting the reasons why Adam and Chava sinned to begin with.
Adam and Chava sinned because they allowed their materialistic and animalistic inclinations to dominate their divine ability to choose to do good. By endowing humankind with freewill, G-d gave us the ability to choose between right and wrong. He gave us the ability to rise above the physical urgings of our bodies and / or our intellects, and sanctify our animal selves through discipline and service to Him.
If an alien were to observe our world from the distance and analyze the behaviors of those creatures that move freely upon her surface, he would have to conclude that only one species appears to change their outerwear from moment to moment. The wearing and changing of our clothes would be the very first noticeable difference between humans and all other creatures. Therefore, clothing sets us apart from all other animals in the most overt and obvious way possible.
G-d chose clothing as the immediate consequence for humankind’s having elected to follow their animal instincts rather than the dictates of their divine souls. In essence, Adam and Chava decided to act like animals, rather than like G-d; therefore, G-d instituted a constant external reminder of the fact that we have the potential to emulate G-d and should not behave like animals.
From a philosophical point of view we can now understand the fascination that society has in using clothing as a means for enhancing and attracting sensuality. Sensuality is a refined and sophisticated word that describes the common animal instincts that all humans possess. The method of the Yetzer Harah – evil inclination is to attack the very characteristic or expression that should make us G-d-like, and pervert it into animal-like.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains the concept of the Nikudas Hab’Chirah – the focal point of our free will. Each person has a specific characteristic that is the main challenge to his or her free will. It is our responsibility to identify that main challenge and do battle with the Yetzer Harah. We must learn to use that identified characteristic to draw closer to G-d, rather than become more distant from Him. For humankind in general, our free will to be “like G-d” or like all the other animals is a constant struggle. Therefore, clothing and modesty are society’s most eloquent expression of divine striving or animalistic perversion. Therefore, the need to enhance our divinity through our clothing, rather than use clothing to express our sensuality, is so important.
The mission of the Jew was to role model for the rest of the nations the human’s capacity to rise above his animalistic urgings and attain divinity. The Torah described the mission as “And you should be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As priests, we are to serve humankind as teachers. We are to reflect in all our actions and endeavors the striving and capacity of the human to be “like G-d.”
In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, G-d chose the tribe of Levi and the family of Aharon to be Kohanim – teachers for the Jews. Just as we are supposed to be the teachers for the rest of society, so too the Kohanim are supposed to be our teachers. Considering the importance that G-d placed upon clothing as the most overt and constant difference between the human and the animal, it makes sense that the Kohanim would be further differentiated from the rest of the Jews the type of clothing they must wear.
In the next week’s Parsha, we will read how making the Golden Calf resulted in much more than idol worship. Pasuk 32:6 states “And the next morning they arose and they began to play (revel). Rashi explains that the term “to play” means “licentiousness.” As soon as the Jews engaged in worshipping an image other than G-d, they gave license to their animalistic side to dominate their divine selves. It did not make any difference what their motives or rationales were. The bottom line was that they decided to do as they desired rather than doing what G-d had commanded. They decided to be like Adam and Chava and eat from the Tree of Knowledge, rather than listen to G-d and not eat. Therefore, in correcting the underlying cause for the Golden Calf, G-d further refined the concept of the “kingdom of priests” as well as the concept of clothing. He chose the family of Aharon to be role models for the nation of Kohanim, and further refined the concept of clothing by detailing exactly what clothing the Kohanim were to wear.
Pasuk 28:43 states, “And these clothes should be worn by Aharon and his sons when they enter into the Mishkan to perform the service otherwise they will die.” The penalty of death indicates the importance that G-d placed upon the clothing of the Kohanim. Their mission in life was manifested through their clothing. Likewise, the Kohain Gadol on Yom Kippur had to wear the proper garments when he entered the Holy of Holies or else he would forfeit his life.
The garments of the Kohanim that are painstakingly described in this week’s Parsha were intended to manifest the divine capacity that each of us has to be “like G-d”. So long as we do as G-d commanded, we elevate our animal side and make it G-d-like. If we do not listen to G-d, we allow our animal side to dominate our divine potential and we loose sight of why we were chosen to be His kingdom of priests.
Immediately following the giving of the Torah, G-d commanded three laws regarding the Mizbeach – Altar. The last law prohibitted making steps to get to the top of the Mizbeach; instead, a ramp had to be constructed. The Torah explains that steps would cause the clothing of the Kohanim to ride up their leg and expose their ankles – therefore steps were prohibited. The actual verse is, (20:23) “So that your nakedness should not be exposed upon it.” Considering the importance that the Torah places upon clothing as the means for remembering our divinity and controlling our sensuality; and considering the function that Aharon and his sons were to serve as role models to the rest of the Jews as how to be G-d-like, rather than animal-like; it makes sense why in the aftermath of having given us the Torah G-d focused us on the importance of modesty in relation to our being “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.