The Leader's Clothing

Nowadays, all leaders look the same. Their typical garb is a dark business suit, a white or pale blue shirt, and a tie with a dash of color. They dress no differently from any other successful entrepreneur or professional. They wear no distinguishing sign to identify them as leaders, as men in positions of great power and responsibility.

There was a time when this was not so. Kings and queens dressed in royal cloaks and regal gowns, and they wore crowns upon their heads, clearly conveying that they were entitled to wield authority over others. Even lesser officials, mayors of small villages and local judges, dressed distinctively, thus setting themselves apart from their constituencies, aloof from the masses.

At this time of year, just before the joyous holiday of Purim, we become keenly aware of the role of the uniforms of royalty. The book of Esther reaches its happy climax when "Mordecai left the king's presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool." (Esther 8:15). This new attire mirrored the dramatic change in Mordecai's position in the Persian Empire: "…All the officials of the provinces…showed deference to the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. For Mordecai was now powerful in the royal palace, and his fame was spreading through all the provinces…" (Esther 9:3-4).

Long before the Purim story and Mordecai's rise to power, there lived another leader whose prescribed garb conveyed his special position. I refer to the passage in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Tezaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10). There we read about the special clothing worn in the Tabernacle service by the priests, the kohanim, the sons of Aaron. Of special interest are the unique components of Aaron's own uniform. Aaron was the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, the ancestor and the archetype for all future generations of High Priests. A special set of eight garments was designated for his exclusive use. One of these, in many ways the most important of all, was the Choshen Mishpat, commonly translated as "the breast plate of judgment" or "the breast piece of decision".

As its name implies, this breastplate was prominently suspended above the High Priest's chest. The details of this sacred item include the following instruction: "Aaron shall carry the names of the Children of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he enters the Sanctuary for remembrance before the Lord at all times." (Exodus 28:29).

The legendary Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, finds this requirement very strange. He asks, "Why the names of the twelve tribes? Don't we commonly mention only the names of the three Patriarchs when we beseech the Almighty for His remembrance?" Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is aware of the Talmudic passage, which indicates that the names of the twelve tribes supplemented the names of the three patriarchs which were also inscribed upon the breastplate. However, he stresses that Scripture itself only mentions the twelve tribes as having their names engraved upon the gemstones on the breastplate. "Why," he asks, "the emphasis upon the twelve tribes?"

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's response to his own question is a fascinating one. He writes: "When one individual is selected from a group for a position of importance we are inclined to conclude that that one individual is chosen, and all the others are rejected. The chosen one is loved, and the rejected are despised. Here too, we might erroneously presume that Aaron was the Almighty's favorite, and the rest of Israel somehow inferior to him. Therefore, the names of all the tribes of Israel were engraved upon the breastplate, indicating that all of Israel was equally beloved by the Almighty." (Kedushat Levi, Exodus 28:29)

Following Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's exposition, we become aware that, unlike worldly royal attire which proclaims the uniqueness and superiority of the wearer, Aaron's special clothing was designed to convince him and everyone else that he was in no way superior to those whom he represented. Quite the contrary; the fact that all of the Children of Israel are equally favored by the Almighty is the central message of the sacred breastplate, the Choshen Mishpat.

The era of the Holy Temple is sadly long gone now. There is no longer a High Priest, and although the distant descendants of Aaron still dwell among us and play a role in our rituals, their special clothing is now only a matter of historical interest. Yet, there is a trace of the lesson of the sacred breastplate that has endured.

This trace becomes apparent if one carefully examines the phylacteries, or tefilin, which Jewish men don most mornings of the year. If one gazes carefully at the undersurface of the leather phylacteries he will notice twelve stitches holding the various compartments in place. The halachic authorities inform us that these twelve stitches symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. (See Mishneh Berurah, 32:51/228).

The person who wears tefilin in our day must meticulously avoid considering himself superior to the rest of Israel, even to those who neglect the mitzvah of tefilin, just as Aaron in his day was to avoid such haughtiness.

There is a fundamental lesson here to be learned by all leaders, of small communities as well as of large nations, whether of the Jewish people or of the world at large. The lesson is that a true leader acts as the leader of all of his constituents and not merely as the leader of those who share his beliefs and convictions.

That Mordecai was such a true leader can be supported by a homiletic analysis of the very final verse of the book of Esther. It reads: "For Mordecai…was highly regarded by his many brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred."

Rashi presents an alternative translation to the phrase, "he was highly regarded by his many brethren" so that it reads, "he was highly regarded by most of his brethren"—that is, most but not all of his brethren. A contingent of Mordecai's colleagues objected to Mordecai's involvement in public affairs, which resulted in his diminished involvement in religious matters.

Many are troubled by this interpretation, wondering why the book of Esther would end with a critical remark against the heroic Mordecai. A relatively obscure Hasidic sage, Rabbi Shalom Yosef of Shpikov, creatively brushes aside this difficulty and explains that the entire verse is a salute to Mordecai's great leadership. Yes, Rabbi Shalom Yosef concedes, Mordecai had his opponents. But nevertheless, "he sought the good of his people," even those who disagreed with him. And, "he interceded for the welfare of all his kindred"—even those who were his fiercest critics.

Understanding the final words of the Purim story in this manner allows us to see Mordecai as a heroic leader from start to finish. The Megilah begins with an account of Mordecai’s bravery and courage and concern for Esther. It ends with the portrait of a leader who seeks the well-being of all of his people, even of those who are deeply disappointed in him.

Purim is an opportune moment for us all to pray that our contemporary leaders, at every level and of every nation, learn to emulate Mordecai's example.