This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, deals mostly with an interesting and surprising area: clothing design for the Temple priests. In great length and detail, the Torah gets down to the nitty-gritty of the priests’ clothing, beginning with the exact number of items the priests should wear when doing their work in the Temple, up to the raw materials to be used for each item of clothing and the precise manner in which the priests should put on these clothes.
This incredible detail is not coincidental. For thousands of years, Jewish sages have examined the significance of each item of the priests’ clothing – beyond the simple significance of the manner in which the clothing was made – in the belief that there is not one single word in the Torah written for no reason or as a coincidence. This examination teaches us something about the eternal value of the Torah and its messages, including those not obvious at first glance. We will also try to look at this issue a bit and see what lessons it holds in store for us, people living about 2,000 years after the Temple’s destruction and the end of the worship there.
One of the priest’s clothes was the coat or robe, and it is described in the Torah as follows: “And you shall make the robe of the efod completely of blue wool. Its opening at the top shall be turned inward; its opening shall have a border around it, the work of a weaver. It shall have [an opening] like the opening of a coat of armor; it shall not be torn” (Exodus 28: 31-32).
One immediately notices the Torah’s concern that the robe be complete, with a unique directive to make the top opening with a double hem so it shouldn’t tear when being put on.
Why was this so important? Was there a lack of wool with which to sew a new robe, should the old one tear?
The answer to this can be found in Sefer Hahinuch, a book whose purpose is to explain all the commandments in the Torah and give them understandable rationales. It was written in Spain in the 13th century and its author is unknown. Sefer Hahinuch writes the following about this commandment: “This is so that its wearer will put it on with trepidation, fear and care. And it is the way of honor that he should fear from tearing it and from destroying anything in it” (Hahinuch on our portion).
Wearing the robe symbolized the entrance of the person into the sphere of worshiping God. This entrance was sometimes accompanied by a maelstrom of emotions, unbridled enthusiasm and uncontrolled excitement. It is purposely here that the Torah reminds us that we must act with trepidation, fear and care, with deliberateness, introspection and calm. When a person is not calm or serene, he may make a tear in his good intentions. A person who does not act with trepidation or care might harm the goal he is striving for as well as other values.
RABBI YONA of Girona (13th century) pointed out a fascinating distinction in his commentary on the Book of Proverbs. He pointed to the similarity between two traits that appear to be different from, and even the opposites of, each other: laziness and impulsivity. We are used to thinking of impulsivity as being very different from laziness, but the rabbi claims that they are actually quite similar. There is a laziness, he claims, that is expressed by a lack of action: a person is too lazy to do what he is supposed to do; and there is another type of laziness that is expressed by a lack of thought: the person is too lazy to think, to examine, and to calmly and deliberately examine the correct action.
A person can act energetically, but his actions could still be based on laziness of thought. The demand to weigh each action and act deliberately is not a call for apathy. On the contrary, it is a call to overcome the laziness that tempts us to rely on old habits and on temporary feelings. It is a call to act respectfully, profoundly, and to give careful consideration to what is the right action and what is not. This is the deliberateness that allows us to act in a way that is exact, intentional and qualitative.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.