Every job I’ve ever held, there was a uniform that had to be worn. Eddie Bauer, a denim shirt and khakis; Abercrombie & Fitch, torn jeans and flip flops; summer camp, a camp sanctioned t-shirt, shorts, and closed toe shoes. Even at temple, there is a “uniform” that I wear to go along with the job that I hold. Many people in society wear a particular type of clothing to indicate their position or job. Each branch of the military has its own unique uniform. Judges, doctors, policemen, and others are proud to wear a uniform that indicates an important position in society. Even in Judaism, there is a uniform (typically worn by those more observant). A kippah is a head covering that indicates a respect for the Creator; Tzitzit are ritual fringes that are attached to a four-cornered garment and are supposed to remind us of the mitzvoth. This week’s parasha, T’tzaveh, is obsessed with the clothes of the Kohanim (priests).
The parasha focuses on the instructions for Aaron and his sons as they become the Kohanim. God tells Moses to receive from the children of Israel pure olive oil to feed the “everlasting flame” of the menorah, which Aaron is to kindle each day, “from evening till morning.” The priestly garments, to be worn by the Kohanim while serving in the Sanctuary, are described. All kohanim wore a full-length linen tunic, linen breeches, a linen turban, and a long sash wound above the waist.
In addition, the Kohen Gadol (high priest) wore an apron-like garment made of blue, purple, and red dyed wool, linen and gold thread, a breastplate containing twelve precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, a cloak of blue wool with gold bells and decorative pomegranates on its hem, and a golden plate worn on the forehead, bearing the inscription “Holy to God.”
T’tzaveh also includes God’s detailed instructions for the seven-day initiation of Aaron and his four sons (Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar) into the priesthood, and for the making of the golden altar, on which the incense were burned.
The uniforms worn by Kohanim make Aaron and his sons stand out from the rest of the community. These garbs become their “on duty” clothes. The whole process of donning them is something of a transition ceremony (a term coined by French-German ethnographer Arnold Van Genep), a daily ritual of transitioning from the mundane to the official, representative, and authoritative. Clothing affects others as well as oneself. When Aaron would wear the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, according to one Midrash, his garments would automatically discourage conversation of petty, day-to-day issues; he was acting in an official capacity. In organizations with a clear hierarchy, such as a police force, fire department, or army, the uniform’s role is to identify the wearer to the outsider. We realize there is a police officer before us, and he serves as an authority figure no matter how high or low his rank. But clothing also changes the wearers’ awareness; as an official he must act in a manner befitting his position. In hierarchical organizations the ranks can often be found marked on the shoulders or collar to remind the wearer of his role. The uniform that clothes a person’s appearance outwardly, also affects his internal world.
The uniforms of the Kohanim are not functional; they are symbolic. Each piece of their outfit was used as a reminder of their higher purpose. The fact the breast plate of the Kohen Gadol contained the names of the 12 tribes stresses the point he must remember on whose behalf he is wearing his uniform and whom he is serving. He should never become too full of himself and remember the people should always to be close to his heart.
The clothes we wear remind us of who we are, the good fortune we have at this time, and what we are capable of doing. We have the ability to help those who may not be dressed like us. I was recently watching an episode of Undercover Boss where the boss, who is in disguise and working in the trenches with his employees, hears from one of his employees that he can barely cobble enough money together to feed his family and for several weeks they have been living in their van. The boss, heartbroken by this revelation, eventually gives his valued employee three years’ worth of rent money. In this case, the clothes the boss wears are his position in the company and ability to give back to those who make him successful. The priestly vestments, as splendorous as they are, remind us and others that we must internalize the values behind those vestments and act accordingly. Each of us has the ability within ourselves to showcase our uniforms and use them to benefit others around us.