We all know the danger of turning people into symbols. Every one of us has our own story of a hero who let us down: when we learned a favorite athlete doped his way to victory, how we unknowingly laughed at the comedy of a rapist, or when we supported a politician who only feigned monogamy. We barely find ourselves shocked by these examples anymore.
It takes an emotional toll on us to have our beloved icons fall and our expectations crushed. We question ourselves. Maybe we are the ones to blame for holding moral standards for our public figures. After all, they become icons not for their moral leadership but rather for their ability to score touchdowns, make us laugh, or carry out campaign promises. Is it worth it to put them on a pedestal when deep in our hearts, we know we set ourselves up for disappointment?
Our Torah portion says yes.
In Parashat T’tzaveh, the artisans who craft the Tabernacle and the menorah are also given instructions to craft the clothing for the priests. This added task catches the eye of the commentator Sforno. “Not only should they build the Tabernacle, provide oil for the Menorah, but they should also fashion the garments to be worn by Aaron” (Sforno on Exodus 28:3). There’s something significant to Sforno in the fact that architects of a sacred space also design the sacred attire. When the artisans design the priestly clothing, they diminish the distinction between the priest and the institution the priest serves.
And just as with the construction of the Tabernacle, the gifts of the people provide the raw material for the priestly clothes and accessories. Our place of our worship has the investment of the people; so too do the priestly garments.
The symbolism is clear. We the people, are investing our time, money, and hope in the priests. Please don’t let us down.
We use the clothing of the priesthood as a way to express our expectations of them. In her book, The Particulars of Rapture, Aviva Zornberg captures what lies beneath the surface of the text:
“The High Priest's vestments invest him in anxiety, no less than in glory. Ultimately, it is not only the [clothing] that is to be "Holy to God," but its wearer. If the dissonance between vestment and wearer is palpable… the trappings become hollow.” (The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus [NY: Doubleday, 2001], p. 369)
It bears repeating. If the dissonance between vestment and wearer is palpable, the trappings become hollow. If the person fails to live up to the expectation of the office, the office is in danger of losing its power.
In a most literal sense, we see the trappings become hollow when in chapter 10 of Leviticus Nadab and Abihu — Aaron’s sons who wear the garments — make an offering (presumably while intoxicated).1 Nadab and Abihu don’t just die from their actions, they’re literally consumed. They vanish, but the clothing remains. The text practically screams at us that even when people fall short of the expectations of the office, we will not let them take down the office they hold with them. Let the vestments remain intact.
In the aftermath of scandal, disappointment, and betrayals, we are left searching for someone new to step into that place. Our pain and our trauma can lead us to divest ourselves from having the expectations in the first place.
If we know that politicians and athletes and actors often do reprehensible things while wearing the garments of their station, we become tempted not to hold such expectations. Maybe we shouldn’t put so much effort into creating the priestly garments to begin with. “Let them fulfill their technical duty,” we might say. “I don’t need to know what kind of persons they are beyond their technical scope.”
But herein lurks the real danger. When we expect less of our leaders, we start to expect less of ourselves. The tone at the top dictates the culture at-large. Our moral standards start a collective slide downward when we rationalize the recalibration our moral compasses. For what we tolerate in our heroes, we will most certainly tolerate in ourselves.
When we bear witness to acts of scoundrelism in the public eye, we cannot shrug it off. We cannot adjust to a new normal. We must hold fast to our expectations — of our priests, our politicians, our entertainers, our athletes, and our rabbis.
Because at the end of the day — those expectations are not actually about the people who hold the office. They’re about us. When we hold our leaders to a high standard, we are more likely to do the same for ourselves.
1. See Vayikra Rabbah 12:1