To Be Cloaked in Glory: Clothes, Modesty, Holiness

As is often the case, we are presented with a pasuk which is, to all reasonable reading, very straightforward. The pasuk seems to be a statement that expresses all we need to know. And yet, there always seems to be a second pasuk which calls into question our immediate and straightforward reading. Such are the two p’sukim which appear in the Torah that speak to the bigdey kehuna, the clothing to be worn by the Kohanim. The first is a direct command, “You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor.” (Exodus 28:2)  The instruction and sense is simple and straightforward. Make these clothes for Aaron that they should be for “glory and splendor.” That is, they should be beautiful. But then, in the second and following pasuk, the Torah says, “And you shall speak to all the wise-hearted people whom I have invested with a spirit of wisdom, and they shall make the vestments of Aaron to sanctify him to minister to Me.” This too is fairly straightforward. The wise-hearted people should make clothes for Aaron “to sanctify him to minister to Me.” The clothes should somehow sanctify Aaron so he can serve God.

Two verses. Each straightforward. But when placed alongside one another, each challenges the other in understanding and meaning.

What is the need of the second verse?  We have already been told that these vestments were to be l’kavod u’ltiferet – for glory and splendor. Indeed, the Ramban notes that these garments were to be as royal garb, to lend splendor to the Kohen so that when he stood before the tribes he would be held in esteem and reverence. What does the second verse add to this understanding?

Perhaps we need look no further than our own cultural response to fashion to understand the need for the second verse!

To appreciate the fascination many have with fashion, one needs look no further than the “Red Carpet” spectacle that accompanies every award show from the Grammies to the Oscars to the Golden Globes to the Country Music Awards to the opening of every new show across the country.  ”Who are you wearing?” is the question of the moment! Gucci? Armani? Narcisso? The names are well-known to those viewing the parade of stars and starlets.

We know from our own culture and experience that fashion has the capacity to capture the attention of the people, and to “wow” them. Understanding the power of fashion on the people, God instructed that Aaron’s vestments be made to evoke kavod and tiferet.

Apparently God expected more than the Red Carpet!

The chachmei lev are more critical than those who are swayed by fashion. They know only too well that the brilliance of the Red Carpet is all show; superficiality is just that, superficiality. The chachmei lev understand that kavod and tiferet are not the consequence of brilliant fashion but a source of brilliance themselves. In other words, fashion, at its best, can reflect these glorious attributes.

As is often the case, the second pasuk complements the first, bringing to it deeper understanding and meaning. In this case, the second verse makes clear that beautiful vestments –clothing and fashion – are beautiful not only because of their outward beauty but because of something more.

In this way, the priestly vestments speak directly to the power of tzniut in clothing. Often, there is a misunderstanding that tzniut should be simply understood as “modesty” and, as such, speak only to the need to “cover up”. Tzniut is the motivation for long dresses and long sleeve blouses; it is the reason that married women cover their hair.

All this is, of course, true. But it misses something fundamental about what tzniut is. The priestly vestments are not a garish display of outward beauty but rather are beautiful because they display kavod and tiferet. They merge the physical with the sacred. The holiness of the vestments are not separate from the garb made “…to sanctify him to minister to Me.”

Our two p’sukim make clear that beauty and dignity are not to be separated. The priest cannot wear priestly vestments and be profane, crass, or unethical at the same time. By the same token, the vestments are brilliant and beautiful in their own right.   Modest and brilliant? Yes, but only if there is an inner beauty driving the display!

* * *

A king was walking along a road on the outskirts of his kingdom. The king, being the king, took no note of the beautiful flowers growing along the roadside, nor did he     take note of the majestic trees that lined the roadway. Rather, he felt himself filled with the fullness of his importance when people on the roadway bowed as he proceeded along his way.

But one man, an old, bearded man sat on the side of the road and considered the mighty king with a twinkle in his eye.

The king stopped and looked at the man. Anger flashed through his mind but then something akin to bemused interest captured his attention. Who was this strange little man who did not have the good sense to show the king the honor due to him?

Holding his hand up to keep his guards at bay, the king calmly approached the little man. “Who are you?” the king asked, perhaps expecting to hear an idiot babble some nonsensical answer.

The old man looked up at the resplendent figure of the king and held him in his gaze. “I am a king,” he replied.

Although the answer was astonishing and, to the king’s mind, fully the response he could have expected of someone not in full control of his senses, there was something in the old man’s calm demeanor and clear voice that suggested that he was neither a fool nor an idiot. “A king?” the king asked, with anger coloring his astonishment. “If you are a king, over what country do you reign?”

The old man stroked his sparse beard as he considered the king’s question. “I am monarch over myself,” he announced. “I rule myself because I control myself. I am my own subject to command,” he added proudly.

While the old man’s reply might seem outlandish at first glance, it reveals a far greater wisdom than it might first appear. For, truth be told, most people are not in control over themselves. Quite the opposite. Far from being ruled by themselves, they are ruled by their appetites and by the forces that exist outside of themselves.

* * *

In the Gemara, Zevachim (19a), R’ Huna bar Nassan said, “I was once in the presence of the Persian king. The king, noticing that I was wearing my belt high up, close to my elbows, went ahead and lowered it, to be properly worn at my waist. He explained his actions by noting that the Torah says regarding the Jewish nation that they are a kingdom of ministers. Thus, said the king, you must wear the ‘clothing of glory,’ similar to the Kohanim, who are commanded to wear their belts in the proper place.”

From this we learn that we should all dress in a way that expresses honor and glory for we are indeed a kingdom of ministers.

* * *

No Kohen commanded respect or honor solely due to the trappings of his garb or office. Nor did his “polish”, quick wit or “prophet-like” countenance earn respect. These attributes may or may not have been useful or important, but they were superficial, the outward expressions of who the Kohen or leader might be.

The Kohen’s vestments were meant to set him apart in performing the Avoda. The vestments are to distinguish him apart as being one on a unique spiritual level. The Kohanim were not actors merely playing the part of holy men! They were not in costume! Wearing the vestments and “just going through the motions”, without the requisite kedusha could never suffice! The vestments, far from conferring anything upon the priest, were a constant challenge and motivation. They caused him to always remain conscious of his mission and his exalted role.

The vestments of the Kohan represented genuine tzniut!

So it should be even now. A Jew can certainly dress in a way that is beautiful and fashionable but his or her dress must first and foremost be dignified and respectful, for everything that we wear are, in fact, our “holy” vestments. Like the Kohen, our vestments must remind us who we are and what our mission and role is.

As Jews, we remember that the performance of mitzvot is an act of beauty. “This is my God (ve’anveiu) and I will beautify Him.” We seek to serve God in a beautiful manner. We seek out the most beautiful esrog. We build our sukkot to be temporary but beautiful. So too our tefillin, our shofrot… all beautiful so that they may enhance our appreciation and our performance of mitzvot.

Not beauty for beauty’s sake. Beauty, true beauty, can only be a reflection of our service, our mission and our role. We do not walk a Red Carpet, but a path of righteousness. Beauty is that which is Godly.

Beauty without modesty and holiness is hollow, shallow and superficial. The beauty of the priestly vestment is deep and enduring.

Tzniut – beauty and modesty, beauty and the sacred.