Clothes make the man (or woman)
In this week’s portion we continue with the description of the tabernacle. Last week, we looked at the outside, the construction and the details of the building, this week we focus in on the activities which took place within the tabernacle. A large part of the Torah portion is taken up with the dress of the priests and the extra special clothing of the High Priest, Aaron. Many would read these passages and dismiss them as ritual acts connected to a Temple and miskan which no longer exists and relevant only to the priests ministering to the people’s needs within the confines of the Temple walls. But our traditional commentators find meaning and lessons in every item of clothing, they uncover moral teachings in even the smallest of details which in a first reading may appear insignificant and of little import. By approaching these passages with such keen and discerning eyes, they ensure that they remain relevant to our lives and continue to offer inspiration and guidance.
Take for example, the breastplate. The High Priest is commanded to wear a breastplate with 12 stones inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes upon them, so that he wears their names over his heart when he enters the mishkan. But what was the purpose of the breastplate? According to the rabbinic tradition, it was more than decoration. The role of High Priest is one of great honour and import. People look to him for guidance, he is involved in the glorious, magnificent rituals which take place before the whole community, he is robed and adorned with gold, he is elevated to a place of great power and authority. All of this could lead Aaron to believe that he is special, more important, greater than those over whom he holds authority and power. The breastplate was to serve as a constant reminder, as it rested over his heart, of where his heart was to be directed, that the power he held was not for his own glorification and benefit but rather it was an honour bestowed for him to serve the people. He was reminded to hold the people always before him, that they should direct his heart to its task rather than greed, ambition or desire for more.
I recently read an article by Emma Nobel and Maria Tickle from “This Working Life” an ABC podcast looking at all aspects of our work life. In the article they brought research which showed that power can corrupt almost anyone and that once a person has obtained a position of power they are more likely to cheat, lie and swear. Often the very qualities of empathy, concern for others and co-operation which saw them elevated to more powerful roles are the very things discarded by the acquisition of power. The Torah was aware of the very real possibility of power corrupting even the most noble of our leaders and so they embedded into the system, checks and balances to remind the leaders of not only their responsibilities but also the heart that they need to have within them, the intention with which they carry out their duties and that they should keep in mind always, the people whom they serve and not their own aggrandisement and self interest.
So the Torah teaches a powerful lesson in leadership and humility with one item of clothing. The priests and the High Priests had many more garments, each with their own message for the ancient leaders and for us today: clothes really can make the man (or woman) when we heed the symbolic lessons and bring them into our deeds.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
7 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW 2025
p: 02 9389 6444
Shabbat, January 30, 2021
17th of Sh’vat, 5781
Friday, January 29 2021 7:44PM
Motzei Shabbat 8:20PM
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