Remembering who you are by what you wear


Tetzaveh, 2014

This week’s parsha continues the detailed instructions for the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and creating all its adornments and utensils. The focus now is on the garments of the high priest. The reading carefully lays out the exact dimensions, fabric, measurements and look of the tunic and robe the priest would wear as well as the jewel-encrusted breastplate that would rest on his chest.

The items are luxurious in nature – nothing is spared. There are gold rings, gold threads, silks, rich colors of purple and crimson. The breastplate is encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones of all colors. Each piece is imbued with symbolism and meaning.

The breastplate in particular is worth looking at. It is set with 12 stones: four rows of three stones each of very specific color and style.

17“Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; 18 the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; 19 the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; 20 and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. 21 The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.” (Exodus 28:17-21)

Twelve stones set in a particular order and style representing Jacob’s 12 sons and/or the 12 tribes of Israel. Clearly this is meant to impress, to show the weight of Israel, the value of Israel to those who would see it. So the obvious question is, “who sees this magnificent work of art? To whom is the grandeur directed?”

This is the outfit the high priest will wear when he offers sacrifices and enters the Holy of Holies – the innermost chamber of the Mishkan (and later the Temple) on that holiest of days, Yom Kippur. Certainly the Israelites would see the breastplate – but only from afar and not for very long. One could say that God would see it – but so what?  Doesn’t God see all any way?

I would suggest that the grandeur, luxury, weightiness and splendor of the breastplate – maybe of all the garments – are designed for the priest himself to see. It is he who will stand before God on behalf of the people. And in wearing these garments, it will be impossible for him to forget on whose behalf he is there – after all, all 12 tribes are embossed on his chest!  He will also look at himself and know that he is there fulfilling a role, playing a part. He is not there on his own behalf or out of particular merit, but because it is his job to be there on behalf of the people Israel. The breastplate is a beautiful and powerful reminder to its wearer of his responsibility and obligations to others and to the holy work at hand.

Let’s contrast this for a moment with our modern adornments and clothing. So often what we wear is meant to impress others: the right labels, the latest fashions and the witty statements on our T-shirts or the brands we advertise. The audience for these items is everyone else. We wear rubber bracelets or political buttons to “raise awareness” of issues we care about to others. Our clothing and our style make “statements.”

We are so worried about telling other people what we think or what we care about that these items don’t really impact our behavior, our actions or us. They are just about advertising something to someone else.

However, the priest’s garments are supposed to change his behavior, make him act differently.

In many ways, this is the reason I choose to wear a kippah – a yarmulke – most of the time. Sure, it tells other people that I am Jewish. To many people, it indicates that I am a rabbi. But really, it is supposed to be telling me something – giving me the message that there is something above or beyond me to whom I owe allegiance; that I am not the arbiter of my own fate. It reminds me, I hope, that I have certain obligations to behave in certain ways that reflect my values.

The same is true for the “Tallit katan” the small tallit with tzittzit (fringes) that are traditionally worn by all adult men under their clothes at all times. It isn’t for others to see – it is private, for the wearer to remember the mitzvot he must perform.

We, human beings, are very forgetful and we need reminders – not for the sake of others, but for ourselves. How do you remember who you are in the world on a daily basis? What do you wear that prevents you from “forgetting yourself?”  How do the clothes you wear, that others may see, impress upon you your own value, your own self-worth? And do you like the message you are telling yourself?

RABBI ELYSE WECHTERMAN is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim, a Reconstructionist syn-agogue in Attleboro, MA.