Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )
A deeper look at the meaning of clothes and nakedness.
In Parashat Terumah, which was read last week, the instructions to build the Mishkan were given to Moshe, and through him, to the entire nation. But the Mishkan would have to be staffed and maintained. Who would serve in the holy tasks that the Mishkan was intended to fulfill? Who would do the actual work, the hands-on service of God? Who would serve as the intermediary between God and the people? In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aharon and his sons are chosen for this august role.
The Torah describes, in great detail, the special uniforms they will wear when they perform their holy tasks, but this issue is far from straightforward. Clothing is complicated; it has a dual purpose. While it may identify the wearer's role or position, it can hide and obscure.
The Hebrew words for clothing used in this section hint at this complexity.
You shall bring forward your brother Aharon, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as kohanim (priests): Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aharon. Make holy clothing (bigdei kodesh) for your brother Aharon, for dignity and adornment. (Shmot 28:1,2)
The word used for clothing is begged (the plural, bigdei, is used in the verse above). The root of this word is the same as the Hebrew word for betrayal, infidelity, disloyalty, or treason. These are not the words we would wish to associate with Divine service.
A few verses later the Torah lists the various vestments, among them the me’il, an outer garment. Once again, the Hebrew word for this article of clothing shares its root with a highly problematic concept: Me'ilah means embezzlement, misappropriation, or sacrilege. If anything, me'ilah is the antithesis of the Divine service the kohanim are to perform.
To understand the complexity of clothing and to clarify its role in the Mishkan, a place of purity and forgiveness, we must go as far back as the very first garment – and even further.
God creates a mate for Adamand presents her in the Garden of Eden. When Adam first meets his wife, the Torah tells us,
The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame (lo yitboshashu). (Bereishit 2:25)
While the text attests to their nudity, in a certain sense, they were not naked; nakedness implies a sense of embarrassment, even humiliation. It would therefore be more correct to describe them as merely unclothed.
Later, after Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, they become acutely aware of their nakedness, and desperately try to cover themselves:
Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths. (Bereishit 3:7)
Covering strategic parts of their anatomy with fig leaves is not quite the same as wearing clothing. We may easily imagine that Adam and Eve felt more vulnerable, more naked, after covering themselves with fig leaves after the sin, than they had felt when they were completely unclothed, prior to the sin.
They had committed a crime, and punishment soon followed: After brief but thorough questioning by God, and after attempting to deny their culpability, they are found guilty, and exiled from the Garden. Before they are evicted, though, though, they are the beneficiaries of an unanticipated gesture of compassion and kindness:
And the Almighty God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them (vayalbishem). (Bereishit 3:21)
The word with which the clothing fashioned for the disgraced couple is described, "vayalbishem," echoes the word that had been used to describe their innocent, unembarrassed nakedness before the sin, ""yitboshashu" – both of which draw on inter-related root forms (b-(o)-sh and l-bh-sh). The subliminal message of vayalbishem draws upon their earlier innocence, when they were unclothed but not ashamed (lo hitboshashu). Now, in His mercy, God clothes them, in effect covering their shame, and allows them to look away from their sin. By replacing the flimsy fig leaves with sturdy leather garments, God clothes them in forgiveness and restores their dignity. The verse combines two Divine Names – the Almighty, God of Judgement, and the Name of God as Judge.
The transition from being naked to being clothed is not merely having better, more appropriate attire. The clothing is an expression of God's willingness to forgive. At the same moment He hands down their sentence, He wraps them in loving kindness. Like a parent who must punish a wayward child, God cares for them, despite what they have done and despite what He is forced to do as a result. God kicks them out of the Garden of Eden, but He makes sure they have clothing to protect them from the elements.
This new clothing helps temper their feelings of rejection and abandonment. It is a tangible reminder that God cares, even after their sin. The necessity for this clothing was created by their bad behavior; the clothing, in a very real sense, symbolizes their treason, their disloyalty, their betrayal of the trust God had placed in them, their embezzlement and misappropriation of the treasures of the Garden, and their sacrilegious disregard for the one commandment God had given them. On the other hand, the clothing, made with loving care by a forgiving God, covers their embarrassment and eases their shame.
This is the key to the clothing of the kohanim, and to the Mishkan itself: By enabling and empowering us to build the Mishkan, God provided a place where we, so full of hubris and tainted by sin, may approach and appeal to God – who is, at one and the same time, the God of Judgement and the God of Mercy. The clothing of the Kohanim remind us that God still cares. Despite our transgressions, He covers our nakedness and removes our shame.
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2018
For more essays and lectures on Parashat Tetzaveh: