Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha once said to his students: "Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: 'For my sake was the world created,' and in his left: 'I am but dust and ashes.' "1
I think of this Chasidic story because its wisdom extends back to our Torah portion for this week. Parashat T'tzaveh focuses on the advent of the priesthood. "You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests . . ." (Exodus 28:1). In addition to a detailed description of the vestments the priests would be asked to wear, there follows an equally detailed description of the ritual for ordination.
Why is so much of the text devoted to priests, their ritual garb, and their ordination? I suspect that it flows from the peculiar position in which the priests are asked to serve.
A priest is elevated above the people in order to serve as a conduit between God and the people. His job is not simply to conduct the sacrificial ritual. It is through him that the people can access God's Presence.
Ironically, the text spends virtually no time telling us about the inner qualities necessary for Aaron to serve as priest. Instead, the first task is for Moses to prepare the sacral vestments, "for dignity and adornment" (Exodus 28:2). But for whose dignity and whose adornment?
In one sense, the garments are to provide dignity and adornment for the one who wears them. Nachmanides notes that these "are the kinds of garments in which kings in the days of the Torah would dress."2 When the priest would dress in the sacral vestments, he would assume a sense of power and authority, like a monarch, and it was important not only that the Israelites treat him with dignity, but also that he comport himself with dignity.
The garments are also for the dignity and adornment of the God whom Aaron and his sons are asked to serve. Nachmanides also notes that the "garments are to be made so that, wearing them, Aaron can serve kavod, the 'Presence' of God that dwells in their midst . . ."3 For example, the headdress was to be adorned with a frontlet that Rashi describes as a kind of strip made out of gold, two fingers wide, surrounding the forehead from ear to ear that read, "Holy to the Eternal." The message is clear: not only was the priest's role to be transcendent, but from the moment he was dressed in his vestments, he, himself, was also to be transcendent.
At the same time, the priest had constant reminders that he was not of God, but of the people. The priest was asked to wear a special garment called the ephod. Rashi describes it as an apron-like garment that also had two shoulder straps. On each of the straps was to be affixed a lapis lazuli stone, each engraved with names of six sons of Israel. Also attached was the "breastpiece of decision" (Exodus 28:15), made from yarn like the ephod, and folded square, so that a pocket would be formed behind it. Attached to the breastpiece were twelve gemstones, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
As Reb Bunam taught, it was necessary for the priest to be reminded constantly of the paradox of his position. Imagine how the two lapis stones and the breastpiece would weigh on his chest throughout the day, reminding him that his holiness was drawn from the God for whom he was ordained, and also from the people whom he was ordained to serve.
As he donned his sacral vestments, he was to be reminded of the holy nature of his position, but also constantly grounded as "from among the Israelites" (Numbers 3:12).
Earlier in Exodus 19:6, the Israelites are told that God expects them to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Even though we, as Israelites, no longer wear the sacral vestments of the biblical priesthood, each of us must also be reminded that we are asked to live in service to God, and in service to each other. How would we live our days differently if we had affixed to our foreheads the words, "Holy to the Eternal"? How would we live differently if we had emblazoned on our shoulders and across our hearts the names of our fellow Israelites?
We must always be reminded that while we are only dust and ashes, we must shoulder the responsibility for a world that was created for our sake.
- Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), pp. 249-250.
- The Commentators' Bible: The JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot, Volume 2, Exodus, Michael Carasik trans. and ed. (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005), p. 242.
Rabbi Dan Levin is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida.