Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
This week’s Torah portion details the lavish vestments worn by the High Priest of Israel. His priestly garments included a special robe with pomegranates and bells (made of pure gold), a golden breastplate with 12 semi-precious stones set in it (one for each tribe of Israel), golden epaulettes with a single large stone placed in each inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel, and a golden forehead plate inscribed with the words ‘Holy to God.’ Could there be a more impressive looking costume in all the camp of Israel?
We might think that this impressive clothing is simply one of the benefits of leadership, that political and communal authority are tools for self-aggrandizement.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The rabbis teach:
“A certain gentile who was walking past the rear of a study hall overheard the voice of a teacher reciting: ‘These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastplate and an ephod …’ [Ex. 28:4]. He [the gentile] said, ‘these lavish garments, who are they for?’ They replied, ‘for our High Priest.’ The gentile said to himself – I will go and convert so that they will appoint me as the High Priest! He came before Shammai and said to him, ‘convert me on condition that you have me appointed as the High Priest.’ Shammai chased him out with his builder’s cubit in hand. He then came before Hillel and Hillel converted him. Hillel said, ‘can we appoint a king unless he is familiar with the ceremonies of royalty?’ So the Gentile went and learned scripture [about being the High Priest]; when he reached ‘and the stranger who approaches [the holy of holies] shall die’ [Num. 3:10] he asked Hillel, ‘this verse, about whom was it stated?’ He said, ‘even about David, King of Israel [meaning absolutely anyone who is not the proper High Priest in a state of absolute purity will die if they approach].”
The vestments of the High Priest were indeed impressive. They set him apart from the rest of Israel because he was the conduit between Israel and God. What could be more important to the survival of the people than maintaining God’s presence in their midst – especially while we were still wandering in the wilderness? The appearance of the High Priest dressed in such finery added gravitas to the rites he performed.
As for the priest himself, how could he not feel the incredible weight of those vestments? The gold woven into his garments. The large golden breastplate with the stones for each tribe weighing against his heart, the weight of Israel on his shoulders, the weight of God on his forehead – all crafted from pure gold. To bear the burden of these garments, one had to bear the burden of responsibility. One mistake and the connection could be severed. One mistake and he could lose his life.
The convert had it all wrong. He thought he would find personal glory through the priesthood. With study he came to understand that the opposite was true – he would face only danger and heavy responsibility by pursuing such a role.
The garments were not merely to make the priest look and feel special, but reminders that all of us have our place, embedded in gold, among the people. The high priest did not place himself above us, but rather made room for everyone, each tribe given equal representation on the breastplate, all of us seeking our own communion with God. According to Torah, then, great leaders are not arrogant; but instead cultivate humility.
As for the convert, what happened to him? He begged Hillel not to make him the high priest, and continued to study Torah for the rest of his life.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras