You may have noticed that every year that is not a leap year, Parshat Titzaveh is read the Shabbat before Purim. Then again, you may not have noticed. As one current Midreshet HaRova student moaned recently, these parshiot are not holding her attention during Seder Erev (and that’s the genteel paraphrase of her complaint). Now that the proximity of parshah to holiday is on the table for consideration, however, we must determine the extent to which each sheds light on the other.
Some would call the link a mirage and the calendar a coincidence. As opposed to certain other parshiot, where the calendar is rigged to insure a connection between the Torah reading and particular annual events (most noticeable, perhaps, is Parshat Devarim, read the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, with its prominent “Eikhah esa levadi…” (Deut. 1:11) read with the plaintive notes of Megillat Eikhah), Parshat Titzaveh is not presented as a pivotal k’riyat ha-Torah for the season per se. Nonetheless, it may be in our best interest to assume (especially in this Purim season) that nothing is a coincidence – a point we will come back to after considering the parshah.
The dominant topic of this week’s parshah is the bigdei kehunah. The eight special garments to be worn by the Kohen Gadol when he performs the Avodah in the Beit ha-Mikdash are luxuriant. Essentially the garb of royalty, they are made of elegant, expensive fabrics, dyed rich colors in an era when the dyes themselves were hard to come by, and adorned with gold and special gems. These were no ordinary clothes, and they were for no ordinary person. Which is exactly their purpose, of course. Only the Kohen Gadol wore the prescribed garments – and only when he was involved in the Temple business. The garments were not his personal property, but belonged to the Jewish People. Were the Kohen Gadol to leave the Beit ha-Mikdash on personal business, for example, he presumably wore regular clothes.
But this attention to the detail of attire might catch us by surprise (if we hadn’t seen this parshah in previous years). Since when does the Torah pay detailed attention to the way people dress? Granted, the red carpet at the Oscars this week has turned many an eye to haute couture. But even in Sefer Devarim, where men are prohibited from wearing women’s clothes, and women from men’s, the biblical verses leave us to assess our own fashions-of-the-times to determine which is which.
A quick survey of the discussions of clothing in the Torah indicates that clothing has two distinct but not mutually exclusive purposes: 1) dignity and 2) identity. Think of the first incident of dress: God clothes Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden. Before the have eaten from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they have no awareness of their nakedness, but as soon as they attain that awareness, God’s act of kindness protects their dignity. Think of the lengths to which Rivkah and Yaakov go to disguise his identity, however. There, the garments (and the smell of them) not only mask him, but imply the presence of his brother. Or the ketonot pasim – Yosef’s coat of many colors. A gift from his father, the garment is one of honor, of dignity. But when his brothers bring it before their father smeared with blood, the coat is more than symbolic of Yosef; Yaakov understands that what has happened to the coat has indeed happened to his beloved son. The coat provides vivid (and unfortunate) representation of Yosef’s identity.
The garments of the Kohen Gadol are no less vivid. Only one person amongst all of the Children of Israel may wear these eight garments – he is easily identifiable. And the clothes themselves offer their wearer honor and dignity without question. But this is clearly an example of “the clothes make the man” instead of the reverse (take that Hollywood runway, for example, where a gown will become a best seller not because of its loveliness but thanks to the “billboarding” by the actress who has borrowed it for the evening. See http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/06/movies/redcarpet/06fash.html). It is by virtue of the office of the Kohen Gadol that Ploni Kohen wore the bigdei kehunah – and not because of his own sense of importance or stylishness, for example.
Let us examine what offers perhaps the most the picturesque image of all the bigdei kehunah: the me’il. This outer coat, worn over the ketonet, and under the ephod (tied over the me’il) is striking not only because it is unadulterated tekhelet (see Rashi there, as well as www.tekhelet.com to learn more about the vibrant blue and the complicated process by which it is made), but because of the bells and pomegranates that decorate the hemline of the garment.
The debate between Rashi and Ramban (among others) whether the verse indicates that the bells were interspersed between the pomegranates, or that the clappers of the bells were physically inside the pomegranates is well-known. Let us therefore attempt to understand why this particular motif was appropriate design for the Kohen Gadol.
The Torah itself teaches that the ringing (or perhaps tinkling) of the bells is key to an understanding of the decoration (Ex. 28:35). Perhaps the sound of the approaching Kohen Gadol was akin to the trumpeting herald who announces the arrival of a king. Of course, any who saw the Kohen Gadol approach would know who he was; but what about the person who was not looking in his direction? That person cannot be faulted for his disregard of the important personage – he is ignorant – but the slight is not acceptable. The Kohen Gadol therefore heralds his own arrival; all pay him homage, and through their respect to his office, they honor the One we all serve.
Why then the pomegranates? Pomegranates are known for many things – of late, they have achieved a heightened profile, for their anti-oxidants and vitamin C, and two years ago, pomegranate oil was introduced to the American palate through the gourmet section of the supermarket. “Rimonim” are one of the seven blessed species of the Land of Israel, and they seem to be a fairly hardy fruit, for they have been cultivated throughout the world, in varying terrains and climates. Throughout the ages, they have symbolized strength, fertility, and most prominently in Jewish tradition, the 613 mitzvot. More so than any of the other fruits of Israel, therefore, the pomegranate is a meaningful ornament for the Kohen Gadol’s me’il. The Kohen Gadol wears the mitzvot not on his sleeve, and not even on his garment’s four corners like the rest of the Jewish people – but he is completely surrounded by this sweet reminder of the mitzvot. And as he enters the Holy of Holies with the pa’amonim ve-rimonim encircling his hemline, he reminds those who behold him (and presumably himself as well) of the injunction to be righteous. “Ve-lo yamut” – in wearing the bigdei kehunah properly, the Kohen Gadol protects himself in the Kadosh ha-Kodashim, and he venerates the office for which they stand.
But why read Parshat Titzaveh immediately before Purim? Well, the pageantry of Megillat Esther is well-known, and the lush excess of Ahashverosh’s palace stands parallel (or marked contrast, as the case may be) to the luxury of the bigdei kehunah. But if we recognize the dignity of attire – and the way in which clothing both reveals and hides its wearer, then the connection between the bigdei kehunah and the holiday of Purim becomes clearer. Look at the children in the streets – with their costumes and their masks and their frivolity and their joy – and recall that even as the clothing makes the man, so too do those who clothe themselves with dignity earn the dignity of their garb.