The Kohen’s Clothes and the Presidency

“I’m the greatest!”

“I’m the best!”

“I can do it better than anyone else!”

These are the statements we hear from the contenders for the office of president of the United States of America. This year, perhaps because of the tone added by brash billionaire Donald Trump, the candidates sound even more arrogant than ever.

As we get ready to read Parashas Tetzaveh, I am reminded about what my grandfather Rabbi Yechiel Mantel wrote in his sefer Vort un Zeit.

He wonders why so much ink is used in the Torah to discuss the clothing of the Kohen. Many halochos are taught to us by one extra word in the Torah or even one letter. Yet when the Torah describes the clothing of the Kohen it goes into extensive detail. After all, a person’s clothing is only external. What truly counts is what is inside. We are taught (Shmuel I 16:7) that “Hashem yireh laleivav” — Hashem is concerned not with what a person looks like but rather what is in his heart.

In truth, the Torah explains itself in two words in our parashah (Shemos 28:2): “L’chavod u’l’sifares” — for glory and splendor. The Kohen’s role is not only a role of reaching personal spiritual heights; it is also his role to be the conduit of transmission of kedushah to the people.

In his personal role, within the Kodesh Kodashim, he performs the avodah away from the public eye and he wears simple white garments. Yet when he serves in the public eye, he must wear the garments of glory and splendor. It is true that “Hashem yireh laleivav” but, as the passuk also points out, “Ha’adam yireh la’einayim” — man looks at outer appearances.

The Torah teaches us that you cannot be a leader of people if you don’t earn the respect of your constituency. The clothing you wear and the manner in which you wear them has a not inconsequential influence on the people. Just as beautiful window displays entice customers to enter a store and shop, so the dignified and glorious dress of the Kohanim invite the people to absorb the messages of the Torah: “V’Torah yevakshu m’pihu — They will seek out Torah from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7).

There is a danger, however. Sometimes the beautiful external appearance can cause the essence — that which is truly important — to decay. When someone stands out in appearance and is treated with honor and respect, he can begin to believe that he is truly better and more special than others. That thought is the beginning of his spiritual downfall. At that point, he no longer deserves the special role that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has assigned to him. The Torah therefore expresses another role of this special clothing (Shemos 28:35): “V’hayah al Aharon l’shareis — And it will be on Aharon in order to serve.” Aharon has to understand that as far as he is concerned, the clothing functions as a uniform that expresses his role as a “servant.”

The dual purposes complement each other. If the Kohen doesn’t understand that the purpose of his special role is to serve, then he will not get the respect with the glory and splendor.

My son-in-law Rabbi Chaim Yitzchok Yudkowsky once pointed out to me that in the brachos we recite in the morning, in only two of them do we mention Yisrael: “Ozer Yisrael bi’gvurah — Who girds Israel with strength” (which refers to the belt that we gird on our waist), and “Oter Yisrael b’sifarah — Who crowns Israel with glory” (which refers to the hat that we place on our head). The Kohen had four garments. Two of them, the shirt and the pants, everyone wears. The Kohen, and by extension Klal Yisrael, was given two additional garments — the belt, which represents purity, and the hat, which represents the glory of understanding that there is always One Above. That would seem to teach us that this is a special trait unique to Klal Yisrael.

This principle, though, has universal application. It seems to me that the candidates for the most powerful position in the world would gain from the knowledge that the two components of true leadership are honor and humility — that lead to respect and the ability to serve.


 

The author can be reached at rabbisbloom@gmail.com