Torah from around the world #104

by Rabbi Danny Burkeman,

The Community Synagogue

, Port Washington, NY

When I was 22 years old I applied for a job as a movement worker at RSY-Netzer. This was a one-year position for graduates of the youth movement who were just completing university. It was a job for which there was no uniform, and people would normally wear jeans and a sweatshirt. And although I was being interviewed by my peers, people I had known for years, and they would in all likelihood be wearing jeans, I felt it was important to wear a jacket and tie for my first real job interview. I felt ridiculous arriving at the Sternberg Centre (the home of Reform Judaism in Britain) dressed so formally, and I was significantly over-dressed when compared to my interviewers. But I felt there was a way that a person should dress for a job interview, even when the job expected absolutely no formality.

In this week’s Torah portion we transition from the instructions about the building of the


(Tabernacle) to the clothing which the

Cohen Gadol

(High Priest) and the other


(Priests) would be expected to wear when serving in it. The


was to be a truly beautiful structure, adorned with gold and other fine materials, and the

Cohen Gadol

was to be equally resplendent in his formal attire. They should make “

a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash

” (Exodus 28:4). And these were not to be made with materials found lying around the wilderness; they would be made with “

the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen

” (Exodus 28:5).

In this outfit one can imagine that the Priests would have been instantly recognisable anywhere in the camp. Not even Moses had this kind of uniform. And perhaps it is appropriate that people serving in the sacred space, which God is set to inhabit, should be dressed accordingly.

Mark Twain famously said: “Clothes make the man.”


And one can imagine that dressed in their priestly garb Aaron and his sons would have felt able to serve God. Wearing these clothes a person would feel like a Priest. I think about the way that I feel when I wear white on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur: in my robes I do feel different, and putting on the outfit is part of the preparation for that day.

But as much as clothes may make the man, we can also see that the High Priest’s outfit also helped to make the community. Amidst the description of the various elements which made up the elaborate outfit, there are a number of significant elements in relation to the Israelite community. For the shoulder pieces of the outfit they were instructed to “

take two lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone

” (Exodus 28:9-10). Aaron – as the High Priest – would carry the names of the Israelite people on his shoulders “

for remembrance before Adonai

” (Exodus 28:12).

And it was not just on the shoulders that the Israelite community came together. The breastpiece of the High Priest was composed of four rows of three stones, so that they would “

correspond to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names

” (Exodus 28:21), and these stones were engraved like seals with the names of each one of the tribes. This meant that Aaron carried “

the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart

” (Exodus 28:29).

One might imagine that it would have been sufficient for the High Priest to just have Bnei Yisrael engraved somewhere about his uniform, rather than requiring all twelve names, twice. But the need for each of the tribes to be recalled is a reminder that we Jews have always been made up of many groups. Originally we were divided into tribes, later we were divided by the places in which we live, and today we might say that we are divided by the denominations to which we affiliate.

Despite the division into tribal groups, we were still united as a single people through the uniform of the High Priest. When he stood in the Tabernacle he did not represent one tribe or another; he represented all of the tribes, carrying them upon his shoulders and feeling them resting on his heart. Through the clothes of the High Priest he was not just dressed to serve God in the Tabernacle, he also served to unite the people. Each one of them could see their tribes’ name and stone in his outfit; a symbol of their belonging. The clothes may have made the man, but they also helped to make the community.

And it is true that the clothes we wear effect the way that we feel, but they also have an impact on the way that others see us; my jacket and tie prepared me for an interview, but it also said something to my interviewers. The High Priest’s outfit helped him feel ready to serve God, but it also made a statement about community to the rest of the people.

In our ever more fractious Jewish community it is sad to reflect that there is no place where all Jews come together to be represented as one people, the Bnei and Bnot Yisrael – the children of Israel. If we could find a way to create that place in our modern world, then I am sure that just as in the Tabernacle before, God would dwell amongst us.

1 Rather amusingly, the quote continues “Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

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