by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Almost half of this week’s entire parasha, fully 43 verses of parashat Tetzaveh, are devoted to the detailed description of the priestly garments–the vestments that the Kohanim wore. Only the priests wore special garments, none of the other twelve tribes (the tribe of Joseph is divided into Ephraim and Menashe) are honored with a special wardrobe.
At first, the tribe of Levi was just another one of the tribes who descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. However, when the Levites refused to worship the Golden Calf, and, in fact, stood to defend the honor of G-d with their lives and displayed their loyalty to both G-d and Moses, they became the special tribe. They then replaced the firstborn male children, who were originally intended to be the selected servants of G-d.
As the ministers of the People of Israel in the holy chambers of the Tabernacle and Temple, the Levites were given certain gifts, tithes, and were also bequeathed 42 cities along with their surrounding fields for them to work and support themselves.
There was, however, one special family of Levites, descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, who became the priests, the Kohanim. The Kohanim were charged with actually performing the sacred duties in the Tabernacle, with the Levites assisting them.
Originally there were about 22,000 Levites, and only four Kohanim (priests)–Aaron, Elazar, Itamar and Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 83b) states that when the priests wore their holy garments, their Kehunah, their priesthood, was upon them. When they were not wearing those garments, they were like common members of other tribes. The lay priests wore four garments, while the High Priests wore eight. The clothes, in effect, made the man. Without the clothes the priests could not serve or perform any of their duties.
Thus, the priestly vestments represent the uniform of duty. The garments articulated the preparedness of the Kohanim to serve the people, in effect declaring: “I am wearing my uniform, I am ready to serve!” Thus, through their garments, a tribe of Israel was transformed into a sacred sect, devoted thoroughly and completely to the service of the Al-mighty and the People of Israel.
The story of Purim is also a chronicle of transformations. The nation of Israel, who was at the point of annihilation at the hands of wicked Haman, was suddenly transformed into a heroic people admired by all the citizens of Persia and Media. The hated nation of Israel, suddenly became the most admired.
Rabbi Nosson Telushkin in his erudite volume Ha’Torah V’haOlam, points to two revealing verses in the book of Esther. In Esther 3:15, the Megillah states, וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת, וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה , when the edict was issued in Shushan the capital, the King and Haman sat down to drink, and the entire city of Shushan was confounded.
The second verse cited by Rabbi Telushkin, Esther 8:15, describes the rise of Mordechai: וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת…וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה , After Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews was foiled, the book of Esther states that Mordechai was elevated to the highest position in the land, and came out publicly before the king wearing royal garb, and the entire city of Shushan rejoiced and was happy.
The Midrash Rabbah, Esther 3:15, quotes these verses, stating that the two verses in Esther may be explained by the verse in Proverbs 29:2, בִּרְבוֹת צַדִּיקִים יִשְׂמַח הָעָם, וּבִמְשֹׁל רָשָׁע יֵאָנַח עָם ,When the righteous increase, the nation rejoices, when the wicked rule, the nation groans.
Rabbi Telushkin points out insightfully that in Shushan, when the power of the wicked Haman and King Ahasuerus was ascendant, and the two sat to drink in the city after issuing the decree to murder all the Jews, the entire city, indeed the entire empire, all 127 states of Persia and Media, sighed in pain. However, when the evil was defeated and Mordechai ascended, appearing publicly in royal garb, the entire city of Shushan and the entire empire rejoiced and was jubilant.
The priestly vestments do not make the priests sanctified. The garments simply serve as a reminder of the important and sacred role that the priests are to fulfill. The priestly garments aid the priests to rise up and transform themselves from being just another one of the tribes, into leaders who inspire myriads.
Similarly, the ascendant power of evil and wickedness is so great, that it has the ability to transform empires–127 states with millions of people, into rabid anti-Semites, willing to destroy an innocent nation.
When the priests, who are dressed to serve as leaders, assume their sacred role, they can inspire a nation for good, for justice and for kindness. As a result, all the people rejoice, will be content and fulfilled.
Rabbi Telushkin points out specifically that when righteousness and goodness ascended to power in Shushan, not only the entire city, the entire state, the entire nation, not only Jews, but non-Jews as well, rejoiced and were happy.
Let us hope, that just as the clothes transformed the descendants of Aaron into priests, and just as righteousness and goodness transformed an entire nation of would-be killers into sympathizers, so shall our people, our country, our nation also witness transformations, in which all evil will vanish, goodness will ascend, and G-d’s blessings will be showered on all peoples and all nations.
May you be blessed.
This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.
Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Thursday, March 9th, 2017 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, and Sunday, March 11th-12th, 2017.
The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.