When my mother came to Israel for her first lengthy stay, she rented a room with a woman who like herself was an older widow living alone. They had almost nothing else in common, but they soon became fast friends. They sometimes began the day with enjoying their schmoozing sessions over the kind of leisurely breakfast that two retired woman can afford to permit themselves to indulge in. Their discussions often took them to checking out first- hand what was new in the stores on Machei Yisrael, the Geulah equivalent of Fifth Avenue. They were way past being the fashionistas they may have been over half a century earlier, but shopping was important. The right accessory, or right head-scarf was worth the hunt, and of course the discussion, and finally (sometimes) the “kill”- the actual purchase of the item “captured”.
Whether or not you have the time or inclination to mega shop, your purchases tell you more than you think that they do. When you look at your own closet, what do you see? Its contents don’t tell you who you are, it tells you who you wish to be, and how you want others to see you. Your closet is your armory (whether you think about it or not). It’s where you store your identity and at least to some degree, your defenses.
It is extremely unlikely that you own anything even remotely resembling the Kohein Gadol’s eight garments. When you get to Parshat Titzaveh, you may wonder why they are described in such detail. You may ask yourself what the Torah is telling, not just about him, but about you, since nothing in the Torah is irrelevant..
The significance of their garments is that the Kohen is meant to have an identity that goes beyond the identity of an ordinary individual. When he isn’t wearing these garments, his individual personality is exposed with all of its faults and weaknesses’. When he is wearing the bigdei kehunah he doesn’t appear as he actually is in his personal life, but as she should be. He must be one with his garments! The Gemarrah tells us that nothing can intervene between the garments and his body. They have to become one unit. Each of the garments brought about atonement for a defined sin by giving us a vision of what the rectified state of the underlying cause of the sin of being would “wear”. Until you know what purity and holiness really look like in real life, you have nothing with which to contrast your own choices, and the norms of the society in which you live.
The materials that were used in making the garments are a statement, as is their purpose and their color. Malbim, Rav Hirsch and others take the difficult esoteric ideas presented in earlier mystic sources and make them digestible. Here is a small sampling of some of their ideas. The trousers and the tunic were made of white linen. Linen is made of flax, which grows. This tells you that the “vegetative” you, the part of you that enacts sexual activity must be pure. Thus the trousers atoned for transgressions involving your least conscious and most desire oriented self. The message isn’t “don’t have desires”. It is “use your entire spectrum of desires and feelings in a way that is holy”. In contemporary society the laws governing these areas of life are seen as repressive and unnatural. The Torah’s view is that being holy is liberating, and for a Jew nothing is more natural!
The next garment, the tunic, covered the heart, the seat of emotion. The passions that are so much part of your life ultimately are (to quote the Vilna Gaon), the “Captain of the Ship”. Your heart must be informed by your mind; otherwise you are in the unenviable positon of being on a ship that has no navigator. The first time that I read this, I did a flash back to the heroes of my literature classes in High School. The Shakespearean plays that we were (forced) to read, the tales of the Knights of the Round Table, and many others were beautifully written. They had the gift of making you feel like you are there, feeling what they felt (if you liked literature that is…). These feelings (love of honor, proving your strength against “the foe” without even questioning whether the label fits, even romantic love which was often lust covered with beautiful lyrics but no content) had no direction. They narrated the story of a ship with no navigator; there was no underlying purpose to the life. The characters were completely out of touch with their deepest most human side. It’s not for nothing that the tunic which covers the heart atones for murder. If you are the star of your own show, then potentially every other human being can be your competitor and thus your enemy.
There are six more garments, but there is neither time nor space for me to go into them right now.
You may be wondering why I even began to write about this topic. The reason is that before the Torah was given, Hashem told us that we are a holy nation and a nation of kohanim. That means that, whatever, your personal flaws still remain untouched, you still have a role that you can’t neglect. You are a member of the Jewish people, with a defined mission. You have to exemplify what being holy is. What does this look like in real life?
It looks like a girl who spent a half a year at Neve doing her best to keep the laws of negia. It looks like a girl who spent half that amount of time deciding that she will only date boys who share her values. It looks like a girl who is fully observant and knows the halachot making it clear to the shadchans she speaks to that she wants to build a house built on the foundations of Torah. It also looks like a girl who has a painful home life. She wears her emotions with kedushah. That means, for her, deciding to play the game by her rules and not theirs; even if people say things that are indescribably degrading, she responds with decency because she is committed to be the kind of person who never “kills” anyone by humiliating them.
You all have the ability to be part of the Kingdom of Kohanim. Enjoy the role!