Tetzaveh (Ex. 27:20-30:10)

Longer essays

Wool and Worm (2011)

Esther & the High Priest: Royal Garments (2009)

A Beautiful Mitzvah (2005)

Short takes

Formal Dress Required (5774/2014)

This week’s New York Times featured a series of short essays condemning casual dress in North America. Authors said: each person’s style should be a personal brand; formal dress sets a tone of respect; jeans and tee shirts are monotonously ugly. These writers might appreciate Parshat Tetzaveh’s discussion of the garments of the cohen gadol (High Priest). Dressed for work, he wears an absolutely unique outfit, four gorgeous layers thick, handmade by the finest designers and artisans.

Why such a formal outfit? Well-known answers include: so he can be instantly recognizable; formality at the mishkan (sanctuary) inspires a sense of awe; service to God should be beautiful; one needs layers of physical protection to enter the Presence of God; the cohen gadol loses his individuality and becomes clothed in his office.

Mishnah Yoma (1:1-7) underscores the last answer. In Temple times, on Yom Kippur the cohen gadol would make atonement on behalf of the nation. During the seven days leading up to the ceremony, he lived a ritual transforming him from individual to officiant. Others controlled his mind and body, teaching him, requiring him to repeat lessons, taking him to visit sacrificial animals, making him practice motions around the altar, controlling when he would eat and sleep. As they took their leave the day before the ceremony, they would say, “By God! Don’t deviate from a single detail as rehearsed!” At that point, they would allow him a moment to express his emotions before the last shift of handlers took over.

Seen in this light, perhaps contemporary casual dress is a protest against a life regimented by productivity, propaganda, and 24-hour connectivity. How is your clothing connected with your philosophy of life?


From Wool to Worm: Welcome to Spiritual Community (5771/2011)

The clothing of the cohen gadol (High Priest) tells us a lot about his job. On the one hand, he is unique. He wears robes woven of wool and silk, while other Israelites are told not to weave those fabrics together. On the other hand, he is connected with the full spectrum of nature. The wool of his robes is dyed sky-blue, royal purple, and crimson.

Wool comes from the animal held in highest esteem by the Israelites. Sheep are fine enough to be offered to God, and their wool is beautiful enough to decorate the mishkan’s ceiling. They are good enough to eat. In some contexts, they represent the people. Just as the Israelite shepherds care for their sheep, so God cares for the Israelites, with the help of the shepherd Moshe.

The dyes, however, come from some of the Israelites’ least favorite animals. In their day, sky-blue and royal purple were made from the bodies of shellfish: mysterious, inedible, creepy animals from the sea bottom. Crimson was made from the bodies of worms. In the Hebrew Bible, “worm” is a popular metaphor for the lowest of the low.

The cohen gadol led the cohanim in performing rituals that address a full range of human psychological needs – from the highest aspirations of dedicating oneself to a spiritual calling, to the self-indulgent joy of celebrating life’s milestones, to self-purification after difficult passages.

Our Or Shalom community is like the cohen gadol: both a unique spiritual home, and a community consisting of every possible type of person. May we be able to serve as cohanim to one another, through all of life’s joyful and challenging passages.


Holy Purim Costume! (5769/2009)

This Shabbat we read Parshat Tetzaveh, and on Monday evening we will read Megillat Esther.

Parshat Tetzaveh describes the creation of the magnificent garments of the cohen gadol, the High Priest. These were designed by the finest designers, and produced by the most accomplished weavers. They were spun in the royal colors of royal blue, purple, and crimson. The full handmade outfit included underwear, a robe, a tunic, an apron, a sash, a metal breastplate, a headband with God’s name, and a royal turban.

Some say the cohen gadol wore this fancy outfit in order to impress the people with the power of holy ritual. Others say the cohen gadol wore this many-layered outfit whenever he entered the Holy of Holies to intervene with God on behalf of the people, to protect him from the full awesome power of Divine presence.

Megillat Esther tells the story of a young queen who clothed herself in royal garments, and entered the life-threatening presence of a king to intercede on behalf of her people.

What is the significance of the royal garments? Do they protect by creating an outer image or by creating a protective screen for a vulnerable self? How is Queen Esther like a cohen gadol? How does each of us clothe ourselves when we are vulnerable? How should we present ourselves when we are advocating on behalf of others?

Take a few moments before the Purim merriment to look inside.

Image: lenoeudpapillon.blogspot.com

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