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Symbolic Clothes

In this week's portion, we find a detailed description of the eight garments worn by the High Priest: the breastplate, apron, robe, cloak, hat, sash, tzitz (a golden plate worn on the forehead), and pants (Exodus 28:4, 28:36, 28:42). The parsha continues by describing the animal offerings of the Tabernacle.

The Talmud (Arachin 16a) questions the logic behind this juxtaposition. What is the connection between the priestly garments and the animal offerings?

According to the Talmud, both bring about atonement. The Talmud elaborates on this idea by listing the symbolism of each garment:

The cloak, reminiscent of Yosef's cloak, atones for the crime of murder.

The pants, designated to cover nakedness, atone for the crime of immorality.

The hat, symbolizing haughtiness, atones for pride.

The sash, covering the trunk of the body, atones for illicit thoughts of the heart.

The breastplate ("choshen mishpat") atones for judgments ("mishpat") that are false or corrupt.

The apron atones for idolatry.

The robe, with its pleasant-sounding bells at the hem, atones for the negative sound of evil speech ("lashon hara").

The tzitz atones for brazenness.
The commentator Kli Yakar explains that these eight types of incorrect behavior can be subdivided into two categories. Idolatry, immorality, murder, and loshon hara are severe crimes in and of themselves, while the remaining behaviors - judicial corruption, pride, immoral thoughts, and brazenness - are generally undesirable traits that cause other sins to be committed.

Yet all this categorization still does not help us resolve the fundamental question: how can the garments of the High Priest atone for the Jewish people?


In order to understand this issue, we must clarify the mechanism at work. When the Torah promises us benefits for fulfilling mitzvot, it is not describing an automatic process of reward. Wearing the priestly garments with no awareness of their power would cause no effect at all. The Torah teaches us the potential for good that is contained within every mitzvah - but actualizing that potential takes hard work. We must change ourselves for the better, and only then will the circumstances around us change.

We see one example of this in the description of the High Priest's robe, which atones for the sin of loshon hara. The Torah states (Exodus 28:31) that the robe must be made entirely of techeilet (turquoise), a color that the Talmud (Menachot 43b) likens to the sea. We can extrapolate from this description that the sea can teach us how to curb our tongues from improper speech. The enormous waves of the ocean come speeding in with great force - yet ultimately they crash at the shore and dissolve. This reminds us of the verse in the Book of Job (38:10-11), "I have put a bar and doors on it; come to this point ("ad po") and go no further." The word po ("this point") is spelled identically to the word peh, which means "mouth." Thus, the Kli Yakar suggests that the turquoise color of the priest's robe reminds us of ocean waves, which in turn teach us not to overstep boundaries in our speech.

We see this also in the Torah's instruction to reinforce the opening of the robe (Exodus 28:32). The words used in this instruction ("Safah yihiyeh l'fiv saviv") can be translated literally as, "There should be lips to your mouth" - meaning that we should use the "bar and doors" we have been given (teeth and lips) to prevent our tongue from bursting out and speaking negative or unnecessary words. Furthermore, the hem of the priestly robe is adorned with small bells (Exodus 28:34) that jingle as the High Priest moves about and performs his service. The bells can be compared to a mouth, with the clapper symbolizing a tongue, serving as an additional caution to watch what we say.

Finally, at the end of the description of the robe, the Torah states, "And he [the High Priest] will not die" (Exodus 28:35). Why would the Torah specifically mention this detail in reference to the robe? We can understand this verse based on the midrashic statement that loshon hara kills three people: the speaker, the listener, and the party being spoken about (Devarim Rabba). If we internalize the lesson of the robe, and withhold ourselves from improper speech, we can save all three parties from death.

The example of the robe shows that the lessons of the garments must be brought into reality and used to improve ourselves in order to achieve atonement. Judaism is not just a game, where a given thought or action will magically bring about the desired effect. We must strive to truly internalize the messages of the mitzvot and make them manifest through focused, positive action. Only in this way can we reap the benefits of their potential.

May we be blessed to cultivate this outlook on mitzvot, so that we can develop a complete picture of Torah, combining our knowledge of the details and technicalities with an understanding of the deep opportunity for self-improvement contained within every action.

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