Wearing the Uniform of Priesthood

February 23rd: Tetzaveh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Among the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle/Tent Temple), we read about the vestments to be worn by the High Priest. It must have been a grand uniform, with woven work of blue, purple, and crimson yarns and of fine twisted linen. There was a breastplate with twelve gem stones and gold chains. The hem of the robe had little pomegranates and golden bells all around. There was an elaborate headdress with a gold “frontlet” handing down onto the priest’s forehead. Upon this frontlet were the words, “Holy to the Lord.”

The idea was to dedicate the priest’s work to God. This was not the aggrandizement of a human, but rather the tasking of a human, and the human had to remember to stay on task—to do God’s holy work.

The ancient priesthood is today just a part of memory. Instead of sacrifices performed by the kohanim/priests, our services consist of prayers. This means that there really are no priestly duties—though descendants of the priests are honored in various ways in the synagogue. Until the Temple is rebuilt and the sacrificial worship system is reinstated, the priestly role is primarily honorific.

There is another way that we can look at this notion of priesthood—that a special group of people can be dedicated to holiness. Though the ancient priests had specific tasks to do in the Mishkan and later the Temple, all of the Israelites were charged with a responsibility for holiness. Remember what God said just before the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6

Before the rules for the priests, before the instructions for their vestments, and before the declaration that Aaron and his sons were to be the priests in perpetuity, there is this metaphorical ordination of the entire people. There is for each one of us an element of ritual and moral priesthood. We are all called to be priests!

The Rabbis understood this, and, though they did not de-emphasize the priesthood, they did craft a series of rituals that elevated individual Jews to a sense of priestly value. And, they followed the sensibility of the High Priest’s uniform, offering individuals the suggestion that they, too, can be “Holy to the Lord.” Here is how our Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, explains it (page 509):

“The gold template marked ‘Holy to the Lord’ was to remind him to direct his thoughts to God when he officiated and to protect him against feelings of excessive pride (Talmud Zevachim 88b). This awareness is reflected today in the practice of wearing t’fillin on the forehead and of wrapping a t’fillin strap around the arm and hand in a way that spells out God’s name Shaddai (Almighty). Not only the High Priest is consecrated to God but every Israelite man and woman is. The development of Jewish law and observance has produced numerous instances of obligations and prohibitions that originally were intended only for kohanim (priests) democratically extended to all Jews. This is to help us fulfill our mandate to be ‘a kingdom of priests” (mamlekhet kohanim) (Exodus 19).”

Many Jews find great meaning in wearing t’fillin during morning prayers. Many find meaning when wearing a tallit—as weaver Ruth Gaines put it, of wrapping themselves in sacred space. The same can be said for any number of Jewish observances, from wearing a kippah to keeping kosher to praying and to wearing Jewishly themed jewelry. These are all ways of declaring that we are “Holy to the Lord” and instilling/inspiring a sense of priestly mission.

Of course, the symbolism is all for a point: God is hoping that we act on our priestly potential by exercising moral leadership—choosing the right and holy way to live in every aspect of our lives. Just as the enormity of the world was created molecule by molecule, so will the world be perfected: deed by deed, righteousness by righteousness, kindness by kindness, enlightenment by enlightenment. In every place and every moment, we have the opportunity to make the vital and holy choices upon which God’s hopes depend.

The Biblical assignment of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is both a great honor and a great responsibility. We have it in us to be “Holy to the Lord,” and God is praying that we live up to our destiny.