Torah from Around the World #210

by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, Rabbi Emeritus,

Temple Emanu-El

, Atlanta, Georgia, and past President of

Association of Reform Zionists of America


It’s all about being different, about being ‘other’.

Had such been chronologically feasible, our Sedra would certainly have endorsed Shakespeare’s non-gender inclusive statement that “apparel oft doth proclaim the man.” The text brings us a detailed consideration not only of what particular sacrifices are appropriate for a wide variety of human conditions and needs, but it also makes very clear that the Kohanim (priests of the Tribe of Levi) had to be quite attentive to their apparel.

Going to take the ashes (sacrificial remains) from off the altar? Well, then be certain to wear garments appropriate for this task. Do not under any circumstances wear the uniform designated for the more dignified assignments, such as the carrying out of the sacrifices themselves (Yoma 23b).

Ramban noted that the ordinary priest ministered in four garments: tunic, breeches, turban and belt. But the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was uniquely privileged to add a breastplate (in which the Urim and Thummim were kept), ephod, robe and frontlet. The golden frontlet, by the way, was to have nothing less than the name of God inscribed upon it.

The High Priest’s belt was to be made of blue and purple and scarlet wool, together with twisted linen, while the ordinary priest wore a belt of a much plainer design.

And more. The Divinely ordained clothing items had to be put on and to be removed in a set order. Nothing would be left to chance.

The Midrash teaches that Moses took great pains to point out that the rather exotic High Priestly garb was never meant to be an outward sign of honor for Aaron and his descendants, but rather reflected the Divine intention that the High Priest appear to be radically different than an ordinary Israelite.

Rabbis tried to offer explanations for each item of the priestly garments. Rabbi Shimon is quoted in Yoma 7:8 that even as sacrifices had an atoning power, so too did the priestly garments. For example, the girdle was to atone for those who were twisted in the heart, or maybe for thieves, and the breastplate would atone for those who pervert justice, and the diadem on the forehead would atone for the shameless.

But the real bottom line is that God wanted difference.

The clothing made certain that in the eyes of the people, and for the priests themselves, the priests were


, ‘other’, than anyone else. By being other, by being perceived of as other, the priests were better able to focus the minds, the hearts, the spirits of the Israelites on their sacred role as a divinely elected people – a people with privilege perhaps, but most definitely as a people with obligation.

Purim is THE prime time in contemporary Jewish life when Jews all across the globe temporarily create new identities by changing their outer appearances. Children (and adults) become queens and princes, astronauts and rogues, monsters and imps. Females put on male clothing and vice versa and everything that was certain somehow becomes unexpectedly different. Good triumphs, accompanied by the raucous sound of the greggar.

Purim is the quintessential celebration of otherness, of being


. But just for a day.

Dr. Moshe Idel, premier teacher of Jewish mysticism in our time, pointed out recently that otherness is at the very heart of what it means to be a Jew. For 2,000 years or more, Jews have lived as the


– sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress. We prayed differently, perceived God differently, conducted our lives differently, and until 1948 carried out our national lives differently.

Idel posits that because we were


, others, we learned to think


, differently. And all of our gifts to the evolution of humankind have arisen precisely because we Jews think


. Our otherness has generated our commitment to Tikkun Olam. Our otherness freed the creativity of Maimonides, Spinoza, Einstein and Freud. Our otherness unites us no matter where we have been scattered. Our otherness unites us wherever any Jew is threatened. Our otherness unites us wherever Jews celebrate. Our otherness teaches us to care for whoever is held to be not quite the same as everyone else.

Idel stands shoulder to shoulder with our text, calling upon us to continue to think


, to avoid being swept up into the undifferentiated whole, to resist the attractiveness of being just like everyone else – and thus to be able to continue giving to our world new and creative ways to address our human condition.

Within the family of the World Union, we embrace an ‘otherness’ that serves to unite us. We choose to think differently so as to bring healing to a fractured world.

Recent Issues

More About: