Parashat Tetzaveh: Clothes that make (or fake) the man

The difficulty facing the Bible reader when coming to this portion is the absence of the name of Moses.

"And you shall make sacred vestments for Aaron your brother for the sake of honor and majestic beauty" Genesis 28:2. The most glaring difficulty facing the Bible reader when coming to this portion is the absence of the name of Moses; from the first portion of Exodus until the last portion of Deuteronomy, this portion of Tetzaveh stands alone in not mentioning Moses even once. Moreover, the essential subject matter of this biblical reading is the special clothing of the kohanim/priests - the eight vestments specific to the High Priest and the four specific to ordinary priests. Why this emphasis on external garb? Adam and Eve first clothe themselves as a "cover up" for their sin of having eaten the forbidden fruit. Joseph's cloak of striped colors is a false birthright for an arrogant dreamer about Egyptian fields who sees himself - and not God - at the center of the cosmos. Jacob deceives Isaac by dressing in Esau's clothes and goatskins; Tamar deceives Judah with the dress of a prostitute; and Joseph deceives his brothers with the robes of a grand Egyptian vizier. The very Hebrew noun beged (garment) is derived from the verb which means to betray (bagad), and the Hebrew me'il (coat) comes from the verb which means to steal (ma'ol). On a personal note, before I made aliya, when I would come with my family to Israel for the summer, I couldn't wait to remove my tie and jacket, those symbols of American professional life. Just before we moved here permanently I was thinking of giving away my ties, which seemed superfluous in the pioneering environment of Efrat, with its unpaved roads and frequent black-outs. But after three months of joblessness and self-doubt, I found myself reaching out every morning for suit and tie - vestiges of a prior life of professional success. I was seeking a mask, a uniform, which would make me appear to be what I had once been, clothes to "fake" the man. No wonder that persona is the Latin word for mask, and our "face" is merely an external façade. The cosmetic industry even teaches us that we "put on our faces" when we apply make-up. How much more genuine is the Hebrew word for face, "panim," which refers to the inner personality (p'nim is the Hebrew for internal) and the divine exhortation to the Judge Samuel: "Pay no attention to [Saul's] appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; man sees what is evident to the eye, but the Lord sees into the heart" (Samuel 11,16:7). So why emphasize the external dress of the priests? Our Torah, the source of our strength and eternity, is described by two primary and sometimes contrary images: esh-dat (Deut. 33:2), the fire and passion of the living God in the here-and-now, and the book of laws and rituals (dat) which is handed down as tradition from generation to generation. Fire without a vessel to contain it can lead to unbridled destruction and quick disappearance; a vessel devoid of fiery creativity is empty and meaningless. Biblical Jewish leadership was based on two personalities: the prophet, who breathed the fire of the living God, and the kohen, who guided the nation, guarding the law and ritual from generation to generation. Moses is the prophet of God; Aaron the kohen of the nation. Prophetic fire is a rare commodity, not related to birth or pedigree, since it can only be "caught" from the divine. Priestly continuity, on the other hand, requires instruction by the previous generation, and emanates from national traditions which provide a sense of participation in eternity. Even more importantly, in the absence of the fiery prophet it is the kohen who must preserve the sacred vessels, maintaining their ability to receive the fire when God is again ready to release rays of His splendor. A garment, unlike a fire, can and must be transmitted from generation to generation. This can only work, however, if the garment doesn't "fake" the one who wears it, to make him appear to be what he is not; it must rather serve to remind its wearer of the God of the fire, and thereby of the glorious heritage he is to preserve for his nation. Hence the priestly garments may not be worn by the kohanim when they are not serving in the Temple; hence the High Priest's breastplate has the names of the tribes of Israel inscribed in it; hence his "forehead plate" is engraved with the words, "Sacred to the Lord." The garments are not about the "persona" of the kohen, they are rather reminders of the purpose of his calling. From this perspective, we understand why the portion of Tetzaveh is missing Moses's name; Aaron's greatest responsibility begins when Moses the prophet is no longer present. And we also understand why the Bible emphasizes that "they shall make the garments of Aaron to make him holy and to be a kohen/teacher/priest for Me." (Exodus 28:3), and why the Seforno insists that priestly garb is for the honor and majesty of the Lord, and not of the kohen. The clothes must re-make the man! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.