Bigdei Kehunah, Garments of Light
What, truly, is clothing?
There is deep meaning to clothing.
We see this clearly from the fact that the immediate consequence of the transgression of Adam Harishon, the first person, was expressed in clothing. Further, we can understand the sod, the deeper, inner meaning of clothing, from the letters of the word begged. Our sages teach us that the “materials” with which the world was created were letters. The letter alef is connected to the ohr, the Divine light within creation. The letter bet is a receptacle, a beit kibul for this great light.
The word begged is made of the first three letters following the alef; the bet, gimmel and dalet. In the world of the deeper wisdom—chochmat ha’pnimiut—we learn that clothing are receptacles of ohr. When the kli, the receptacle, has been properly shaped and prepared, then it is ready for the presence of the ohr, the alef—the alufo shel ha’olam—the leader and champion, the Divine light, of the world.
Man, Light and Kaylim
The fact that the first letter in the Torah, the letter that launched creation, is the bet, tells us something fundamental, and exceptionally important. It tells us that the primary region of human activity is in the area of kaylim, receptacles, and not the area of ohr. Our task, our avoda, is to create vessels that can receive the light, and once we do, then God pours forth His light. And when we fail to prepare kaylim, God withholds his light. Clearly, light with no receptacles, is counterproductive, as our sages said, “And the light of the wicked will be withheld.” This can be compared to a person who wins the lottery, but happens to be a person of awful character. The lottery winnings are the ohr, and the person is the receptacle. In such a receptacle, all those winnings—all that light—goes to waste. What’s more, those very winnings enable a person who does more harm than good in this world, to do more harm than ever.
In Hebrew, the word for a Heavenly flow of spiritual light—shefa—is spelled with the same letters as the word for criminal transgression—pesha. Wealth in the hands of an unfit receptacle is a prescription for disaster. Families, friends, all are at risk. This is the shefa that becomes pesha because the person didn’t properly prepare for the infusion of light. The Soul of Clothing
And so: Clothing are, beneath the surface, in their deepest essence, the sod of kaylim, and, as our sages teach, they are particularly connected to middot, character traits. For in truth, character traits are the most salient essence of a person, and it’s in the arena of middot where our greatest inner, personal efforts take place in life. To the extent that a person is able to polish and refine his character, to that degree does one prepare him or her self to receive a shefa, a flow of Divine ohr. Indeed, it’s the refinement of middot, of character, that more than almost anything else determines a person’s connection to the Godly light, or not. In this vein, we are taught that more than anything else, it’s the trait of humility that enables a person to receive the light of Shechina, and it’s anger that uniquely drives the light away.
Practically speaking, it’s Torah and mitzvot that are the great transmitters of ohr in our lives, as it says, “For the mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light-ohr,” and character traits are the receptacles that receive and hold that light within us. And so, regardless of one’s intellect and knowledge, it’s refined middot that are primary in acquiring Torah and the spiritual benefit of mitzvot. It’s for this reason that R. Chayim Vital, in Shaarei Kedusha, puts such great emphasis on the centrality of tikkun ha’middot, on the refinement of character. Character is the person, and for the ohr, a blemished, ill refined character is like a total stranger.
Refined character traits are the beautiful garments, the beggadim, that clothe the person, and “dress” her in light. Stained, unrefined middot are like a person attending Shabbat evening prayers, or a wedding, in dirty work clothes. The spirit of the two clash and repel one another. The deeper reason for this is that our character traits are an extension and reflection of God’s middot, the traits through which Hashem interacts with His creations, and through which He makes His Infinite Light manifest in our world. And so, when we clothe ourselves in sterling traits, we are, in essence, clothing ourselves in Godliness, and thus clothing ourselves in the holy light of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. In a deep and profound sense, it’s like our inner selves, our middot, merge with those of God’s. Biggdei Kehunah: The Priestly Garments
For the nation of Israel, the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, is the center of life. It’s like what the brain is to the body. Generally speaking, from that holy place flows the ohr to all Israel, and every detail and aspect of the Mikdash was a spiritual root and wellspring for the full breadth of the life of the nation.
The shulchan, the table, was the source of the shefa-flow related to wealth.
The menorah was the spiritual root source of wisdom and deep understanding. And so it was for every other aspect of the Temple. As for the Biggdei kehuna, they possess a remarkable inner essence and spiritual force, and, in a certain way, one that is more powerful than all the other dimensions of the Mikdash. The reason for this is that everything else in the Temple is like “furniture,” something external to the person, while the priestly garments clothe the very body of the person, and touch the essence of humanness. With this understanding, we can appreciate that the priestly garments were the source of a unique flow of light that dramatically impacted the traits and inner abilities—the kochot ha’nefesh—of every Jew. This is why the Talmud says that the Temple garments atoned for brazenness, lashon hora, and other transgressions that resulted from blemished character traits, and that the ohr that flows from the garments purify and atone for such shortcomings. Beit HaMikdash
From this we can grasp the profound extent to which the light of the Beit HaMikdash impacted our lives. Today, our path to character refinement is via the teachings of mussar and the investment of great personal effort. However, when the Temple is present, in addition to our efforts, we are the beneficiaries of a remarkable spiritual influence that touches every Jew: Like the brain touches every function of the body, when the Kohanim wore their holy garments and performed their holy service, they were unleashing a brilliant light and exalted bracha that touched, inspired and refined the hearts and middot of every Jew. Thus, in a deep fashion, the nation of Israel was impacted and readied for the unique the shefa ohr that flowed from Tzion, from Jerusalem, and touched every Jew, everywhere.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf