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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
There is a verse in this week’s Parshah of Tzav that discusses the clothing worn by the Temple priests – the Kohanim – and which yields a powerful and relevant message.
The verse states: “The kohen shall don his linen tunic, and he shall don his linen trousers on his flesh.”
The Midrash notes that the Hebrew word used for “tunic” here – “Middo” (מִדּוֹ), is different than the word used for tunic in G-d’s earlier commandments regarding the priestly clothing, or in the Torah’s earlier narrative of the making of those clothing. There, the tunic was referred to as the Kutonet (כֻּתֹּנֶת) – similar to the multi-colored tunic given to Joseph by his father, Jacob. So in that case, why is the tunic here called “Middo”?
The Midrash explains that “Middo” also means “his measurement,” and that the Torah was alluding to the requirement that the tunic worn by the priests must be tailored to each individual priests’ measurements.
With that in mind, it is worth noting the Talmud’s comment on the later words in the same verse, “on his flesh”: that nothing must separate between these clothes and the priests’ flesh. In other words, not only were the clothing tailored, but they were extremely form-fitting, hugging the priests’ bodies. Keep in mind, that these were not ugly or misshapen bodies; as we discussed here, there are several laws in the Torah requiring that Kohanim be in a state of virtual physical perfection.
So the handsome, well-built priests in tailored, skin-tight clothing must have been quite a sight to behold – all in keeping with the goal of the Temple being a cornucopia of visual beauty to match its spiritual splendor.
But the context in which these laws regarding the priestly clothing are taught is odd. Why was the skin-tight requirement not among the commandments to Moses in the Parshiot of Terumah or Tetzaveh? Why were they not mentioned in the description of the manufacture of the clothing in the Parshiot of Vayakhel or Pikudei? When does the Torah finally teach us that the clothing must be tailored? When it speaks of the priests obligation to “take up the ashes which the fire has consumed with the ascending offering on the altar, and [to] put them beside the altar.”
Is gathering the ashes from animal sacrifices the very best place to learn of how beautiful the priests’ soft, clean, white clothes ought to be?
The Talmud explains that this, too, was deliberate. This teaches that the beautiful clothing worn by the priests was not about personal vanity; rather, it was all about the Divine service, and the beauty that G-d required of His priests should never be seen as contradictory to punctiliously fulfilling His commandments – even those involving the very dirtiest of services. There was no better way to make this point than by demanding that the clothes worn by the priest be perfect during what would appear to be among the least impressive of his tasks. Thus, the beautiful appearance of the priests was blended with the scooping of the ashes.
As a “nation of priests,” our own “priestly” garments are our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. It is with these that we clothe our ideas and feelings; it is through these that our character finds expression.
Naturally, we wish our thoughts, speech and action to be the best possible, the most positive reflections of ourselves, the cleanest and most beautiful garments.
And the Torah rejects cookie-cutter, off-the-rack garments. Rather, G-d demands that our garments be tailored to our unique makeup, that they track the contours of our spiritual figures. The thoughts that we think, the things that we say, the actions that we take, should not only be good, but should reflect our unique contribution to the world. What can I do or say that is best said or done by me? What are my unique strengths?
Wearing and maintaining such carefully-sculpted clothing that be wearying, however. Don’t you ever want to get home, take off the suit, kick off the heels, and plop onto the couch with a pair of worn, comfortable and baggy sweats? Our best and most flattering outfits are reserved for more worthy occasions; we have a different, more relaxed standard for lesser moments. This is true of our spiritual selves as well. Sometimes we reserve our best manners and behavior for certain, more lofty environments; but in more mundane, corporeal settings we let ourselves go, and suddenly our garments bear little resemblance to the beautiful ones that we wore earlier that same day.Torah’s message in this week’s Parshah is that the priests wore their beautiful, form-fitting clothing when they were gathering the ashes — a dirty, menial job, coming at the end of the main task of actually slaughtering and offering the sacrifice. Even there, the priests’ garments were of beautiful white linen, hugging the contours of their bodies. Similarly, even in those lesser moments, we must strive to keep our internal garments beautiful and clean, and reflecting that which is uniquely ours.
 Leviticus, 6:3.
 See, e.g., Exodus, 28:39-40.
 See Genesis, 37:3, 23, 31-33.
 See Torat Kohanim, 6:7.
 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Zevachim, 19a.
 Leviticus, 6:3.
 Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 10:3.
 Exodus, 19:6.