Showing Respect

March 10th: T’tzaveh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The first time I visited the Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns, I did not get it. I knew that the people buried there had given their lives for my freedom, and I appreciated it. What I did not get was the austere formality and stiltedness of the guards. I was a high school student, and, straining against the various strictures and formalities forced upon me, I just didn’t see how their overwhelming strictness honored the dead. Their uniforms were perfect. They didn’t crack a smile or deviate from their marching and standing routine by even an inch. It happened to be freezing outside, and their uniforms did not look very warm. Their hats did not cover their ears, and, with those military haircuts, their ears looked very exposed. Their rigid and expressions and demeanor struck me as stilted, and I did not understand why they paid such compulsive attention to detail.

Several years later, I had the chance to travel in Europe and visited the memorial to the unknown soldiers of Italy. It was a very different setting. Set on the plaza of a very grand monument (the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument), the Unknown Soldier area seemed an afterthought. It certainly did not draw one’s attention. The thing that really struck me, though, was the way the guards behaved. They were wearing regular uniforms, and they were anything but formal or reverent. Slouching or standing casually—the way one waits in a line, they were talking to people and flirting with women. One might even have been smoking a cigarette. It was very, very different from Arlington, and at that moment, I developed a real appreciation for the U.S. Army guards and the way their formality spoke of respect and appreciation—of deep reverence for the sacrifices made by the people whose graves they guarded.

We often enjoy the lack of stress that comes with informality, but there are times when doing things right require seriousness and attention to detail.

With this sensibility, let us approach the Torah portion. After last week’s instructions for the Mishkan, the “tent temple” or Tabernacle that the Israelites are instructed to build in the wilderness, this week’s instructions include the details for the priestly uniforms. As the text puts it, “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Elazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron. Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” (Exodus 28.1-2) Then we get the details. Lots of details! For each item—the breast piece, the ephod (a kind of ritual vest), the robe, the fringed garment, the headdress, and the sash, we have very specific instructions about the design, the materials, and the way they are all to be worn. Unless you get into details like, “They shall make the ephod of gold and of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into the designs,” it is rather difficult reading. These details and specifics do not seem very relevant today, but they were obviously important for the ancient craftsmen and craftswomen who constructed these sacred garments and who felt a responsibility for the priests’ dignity before God.

Sometime, doing it right requires specificity and an attention to detail. In the case of a uniform, think about how refined adornment infused with dignity speaks to the importance of the wearer’s mission. In the case of the priests, they were not just insisting on looking good for their friends 2 and neighbors; they were officiating at the altar of the Most High. Their dignity and propriety spoke the importance of God and the relationship between God and the Israelite people. The ancient rituals were moments of great importance, and the priests’ uniforms and demeanor thus expressed the seriousness and profound respect that was very, very relevant. Sometimes, we do not need to “sweat the details,” but sometimes the details are part of a larger and deeper message.

A number of years ago, I heard someone complaining about the difficulty of hosting a Seder. Thinking she was worried about leading the Seder, I said something along the lines of, “Not to worry. All you have to do is get a Haggadah and start reading through it.” But, no, that was not the issue at all. This person, fairly new to Judaism and aware of the great importance of the Seder, was worried about setting the table properly and having each dish prepared with the proper recipe—all to the end of showing the proper dignity and respect for the holy occasion. She realized that the details of the table and food are manifestations of the reverence and kavannah that we was hope to bring to the occasion, and she needed to pay attention and do things right.

There are certainly times when we can relax and not let surface things bring undue stress into our lives. There are times when casual is wonderful. But, there are times when formality and specifics are expressions of our seriousness and our respect. Our Torah portion reminds us of this truth and cautions us not to underestimate the value of dignity and respect and the ways we show them through dress and demeanor and the details of life.