Note: The following is a lightly edited version of the 2014 article on our Parshah, Tetzaveh.
Until the mid-1960s, American men seldom left their homes without donning a hat. That all changed, according to one urban legend, when President John F. Kennedy appeared hatless at his 1961 inauguration, thereby bucking a convention which had governed the etiquette of menswear for centuries, and inspiring his fellow males to bare their heads in public from that day onward. The story seems plausible, right? Actually, this particular piece of trivia is demonstrably false: photographs from the archives of the Washington Post and of Time Magazine clearly show the president wearing a hat on the day that he was sworn into office. So, contrary to popular belief, Mr. Kennedy did not kill the homburg, nor did he kill the fedora. Both died of natural causes.
Nevertheless, the fundamental assumption behind the Kennedy-killed-the-hat myth remains true: what leaders wear, matters. It’s that very assumption, in fact, which underlies this week’s Parshah – a Parshah largely dedicated to outlining the sort of vestments which the kohanim (=priests) were to wear while serving in the mishkan (=Tabernacle). Now clothes, by definition, are superficial; for this reason, perhaps, we are often tempted to skim the surface of this Parshah without properly probing the depths of its details. But the peskum (=verses) of this week’s Parshah, like the clothes which they describe, contain more than meets the eye at first glance. If we pay close attention, we can uncover something quite novel indeed.
Hashem takes forty-three verses to present the bigdei kehunah (=wardrobe of the priesthood): what style the clothes should be (robes, sashes, turbans, breastplates, etc.), what colors they should be (gold, purple, scarlet, turquoise, etc.), and what materials they should be made of (wool, linen, stone, etc.). These three criteria – style, color, material – define the bigdei kehunah in concrete terms. But scattered within these concrete definitions we find abstract terms as well: nouns such as “honor,” “majesty,” “judgment,” “memory,” and “holiness” used to describe various components of the priestly outfit. These abstract terms are few and far between, and they’re mentioned only in passing, so it’s easy to gloss over them. Let’s isolate them, and see if, taken together, they reveal anything interesting:
- You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and majesty (Exodus 28:2). For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics and make them sashes, and you shall make them high hats for honor and majesty (Exodus 28:40)
- You shall make a breastplate of judgment… (Exodus 28:15).
- Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a memory before the Lord at all time (Exodus 28:29).
- And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and you shall engrave upon it like the engraving of a seal: Holy to the Lord… It shall be upon his forehead constantly, for favor before the Lord. (Exodus 28:37-39).
When we align each item of clothing with its associated body part (bold, concrete terms) and its stated purpose (underlined, abstract terms), we get the sense that the Torah, through sartorial symbolism made explicit, may perhaps be providing us with a schematized portrait of the ideal Jewish leader. Here’s how it plays out:
The first qualities mentioned in relation to the bigdei kehunah are “honor and glory.” These are the only qualities mentioned twice, and also the only qualities which are not associated with any particular part of the body: instead they introduce the entire wardrobe, and, later, they are loosely connected to the tunic, the sash, and the high hat – the most prominent and most external of the bigdei kehunah. Honor and majesty are critical for leaders, because leaders are people who, by definition, are separated from their fellow citizens – and that distinction must be maintained. Moreover, the conduct of leaders must be noble and proper (or, “majestic” and “honorable”) because leaders are the official representatives of the people – their actions must reflect the dignity of the office which they serve. Yet, like the vestments with which they are associated, “honor” and “majesty” cover only the superficial trappings of good leadership: they’re necessary formalities of leadership, but they’re not what leadership is all about.
The second quality mentioned in relation to the bigdei kehunah is “judgement,” and it is associated with the breast (although the term “breast” doesn’t appear in the Hebrew, the English translation renders “chosshen” as “breastplate” because the breast was the part of the body which this plate covered). The “breastplate of judgement” was the heaviest of the bigdei kehunah, and it was suspended by straps from the shoulders of the kohen gadol (=high priest), who thereby literally “shouldered” the burden of “justice.” But the symbolism contains another layer as well, because in Jewish literature the breast represents one’s sense of shame or guilt – hence the idiom “to beat one’s breast” (which Jews actually do – lightly, of course – during viduy [=confessional prayers] on Yom Kippur [=Day of Atonement] and during the daily blessing of selach lanu [=”please forgive us”] during the amidah [=”eighteen benedictions”]). In essence, then, the chosshen reminds us that the kohen, like all leaders, faces a choice: he can either shoulder the burden of justice, or – if he removes the breastplate (i.e. the yoke) of justice, thereby exposing his breast – the burden he will bear will be that of a guilty conscience.
The third quality mentioned in relation to the bigdei kehuna is “memory,” and it is associated with the heart. Specifically, it is the memory of the “people” which the kohen must keep in his heart, and it is the names of those people which the kohen must carry with him when performing his duties of office. Leaders must “remember the little people;” they cannot let their wealth, social status, political influence or intellectual abilities cause them to forget what life looks like for those who don’t share in these gifts. Someone who leads only with his or her head – that is, who crafts policies based on high-level facts and figures but who fails to consider the impacts of these policies on an individual level – may perhaps prove him or herself an effective governor. But to be a good leader, he or she must engage one’s heart: they must see the state of the people, must listen to their concerns, must empathize with their plight, and must work to improve their condition with the same sense of urgency with which they would work to improve their own.
The fourth and final quality mentioned in relation to the bigdei kehunah is “holiness,” which we might interpret as “higher purpose.” This “higher purpose” is associated with the forehead because a good leader must always keep their “higher purpose” at the front of their minds (literally, at the “fore” of their “heads”). Why am I doing this, in the first place? a leader must always ask himself. Who am I serving? What are my goals? Too often, leaders step into positions of power with noble intentions but lose sight of those ideals in their struggle to maintain power – as if power, for its own sake, is worth pursuing. It isn’t. The goal, in the Torah’s idiom, is to be “holy to Hashem.” Civil service or communal activism is sacred work, and it must always be conceived of in that frame of mind. Only leaders who remember this can find “favor before Hashem” – can find success in their endeavors on behalf of their constituents.
These, then, are the qualities of a great leader, as symbolized by the bigdei kehunah described in this week’s Parshah: honor and majesty, in one’s external conduct and affairs; the burden of justice upon one’s shoulders, and a moral conscience in one’s breast; memory of, and empathy for, the people, in one’s heart; and a sense of higher purpose firmly impressed upon one’s mind.