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Tetzaveh 5784   |   Kate Rozansky

02/26/2024 10:28:26 AM


Who Puts on The Cohen Gadol’s Pants? 

This week,  a friend of mine from college who has since become a Lutheran Minister, asked me to be a guest on her Bible podcast. The subject of the podcast was Pesach, and as we were logging off, I said, “Thank you so much, this is such a nice break from what I’ve been working on,” and she said, “What’s that?”   “I’ve been thinking about the High Priest’s underwear.”  She laughed, but I, of course, was quite serious. A large part of parshat Tetzaveh is dedicated to lush descriptions of the beautiful clothing for the Kohanim, especially the Kohen Gadol.  

וְאֵ֨לֶּה הַבְּגָדִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַעֲשׂ֗וּ חֹ֤שֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד֙ וּמְעִ֔יל וּכְתֹ֥נֶת תַּשְׁבֵּ֖ץ מִצְנֶ֣פֶת וְאַבְנֵ֑ט                                                                                                                                   

Six essential items are listed - a breastplate, an ephod, a cloak, a fringed tunic, a turban, and a belt. The parsha goes on to describe each item individually - before adding on two more at the very end, to make eight. The two items are a golden tzitz  - a diadem - fastened to the Cohen Gadol’s forehead, and micnassiym  linen short-pants (breeches, or as my Memaw would say, britches)  worn under the robe. Aharon must wear these so that he doesn’t accidentally expose his nakedness while serving in the mishkan, and thus, “incur punishment and die.”  Next, we get a description of the ordination process, how Moshe is to wash Aharon  and his sons and anoint them with oil. Moshe then dresses him in the items mentioned above. But when his actions are described, one of the eight items  is missing - the breeches. 

So here is the question - when does the Cohen Gadol put on his underwear?  In fact, there’s a makhlokhet Rishonim, a disagreement among the early commentators, about this very question.

Rashi says that Moshe puts the micnassiym on the Cohen Gadol-  as a part of the ordination ceremony. When the pasuk says, ve’hayu al Aharon -” and [put] these upon Aharon,”  Rashi says it means put, “KOL habegadim haeleh” - all of the items just mentioned - including the micnassiym, onto the Cohen Gadol.  In this reading, the Breeches are a part of the Bigdei Kehuna– significant in themselves, outside of their function. 

 Ramban, on the other hand, argues that the Cohen Gadol, and the other priests as well, put on their own underwear. They do this, he says,   “b’hatzina” - in privacy, with modesty - before the ceremony begins - outside the Mishkan’s courtyard.  The breeches are functional - not special in themselves (or at least much less special than the other clothes). They have no inherent sanctity - they are merely a tool to avoid divine punishment. And once the punishment for not wearing them is made clear, Ramban says, “there [is] no more need to mention them again.”   But - with apologies to Ramban - I have to ask again: Who puts on the Cohen Gadol’s underwear? Is it Moshe or is Aharon? And - you might be wondering - why does this question matter? Whether its Moshe, or if it’s Aharon –  what difference could it possibly make? 

In Midrash Tanchuma, our Sages draw a parallel between the creation of the Mishkan and the creation of the world.  To build the Mishkan, Bnei Israel stretch out goat skins to make the tents, and this symbolizes Day One, God spreading out the firmament over the earth.  The curtain dividing the Cohanim from the holy of holies, this signifies Day Two, God dividing the waters from the earth. We gather the waters of the Mishkan in a laver, and this stands in for Day Three, where God gathers the waters together to make the sea and the land. The heavenly lights created on Day Four are represented by the Menorah. The animal sacrifices on symbolize the creation of animals on Day Five.  And of course, for Day Six we have the Cohen Gadol - our new Adam HaRishon.

I want to suggest that the  answer to the question “who puts on the Cohen Gadol’s underwear?” is also the answer to this question - which Adam HaRishon is the Cohen Gadol? What kind of world did God have us make, when he told us to make the Mishkan?  

If we side with Rashi, then the Cohen Gadol begins his ordination ceremony naked, and the Mishkan he enters is another Gan Eden –  a world without knowledge of good and evil. It is a perfect world, where all his needs are anticipated and met. The Cohen Gadol can show up completely vulnerable -  with nothing at all, and Moshe, standing in for God,  will provide him with everything he needs.

But if we side with Ramban, and the Cohen Gadol clothes himself before entering the Mishkan, then our tefillah is meant to mirror another world - our world. The one where man ate from the tree, discovered he was naked, felt shame, and  made himself clothes, however poorly. In this telling, the Cohen Gadol enters the courtyard of the Mishkan as Adam newly exiled, shivering, in his fig-leaf breeches. 

He is full of terror, because he knows that in this new world there is death. But there is also provision - because God takes pity on these flawed human beings, and gives them clothes. In this telling, Moshe appears - not as God the creator, but God the judge, who is also the God of Mercy. And Aharon is not only the Adam who eventually sins but the Adam who does not merely accept the world he is given, but seeks to improve it.  

Taken in this light, the disagreement between Rashi and Ramban is really  about the way we are to approach our own avoda, our own service to God. Do we pray to escape the world, or to elevate it?  In Rashi’s version, we relate to God as a small child relates to is parents - kind of with love, but mostly with need. What is more childlike than the combination of innocence and  extreme presumptuousnes it takes to address an all powerful Creator?  To daven like you are in Gan Eden is to become a child again. It is an escape from the world of mundane responsibilities, into a realm of awe and gratitude.  On days like today, when I get to come to shul early, and alone, and daven all the davening…I am indeed in a kind of paradise. 

But if Aharon in the Mishkan is supposed to be Adam after the chet, as Ramban suggests, then our own avoda, the project we have been given, isn’t to seek refuge from the messy outside world into some rareified realm of prayer and contemplation. In Ramban’s version the task is to bring our mundane  world closer into the realm of the holy - where plain linen breeches, lowly objects without any inherent sanctity, are what allows us to approach God. It is a world where even our serious iniquities -borne by the Cohen Gadol on Yom Kippur - become a necessary part of our redemption story. I need that world as much as I need Gan Eden. 

In a few moments we are going to daven Musaf together, and before we do, I invite you to ask yourself: what is it that you were seeking when you came to shul this morning? Escape or elevation? Return or renewal? Aharon had only two options: enter the courtyard of the Mishkan with pants on, or without them. But maybe we get to choose. Maybe every time we pray is a chance to partner with God in a new way - as a child, as a subject, a lover, or a prosecutor - and in doing so, to create the world anew. We step backwards in possibility, and forward into eternity.  In other words, the question is not “underwear,”  but “under whom?”

Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784