Do Clothes Make the Man?


The Torah portion of Tzav renders a detailed account of the Temple service. Nearly all the tasks associated with the Temple and its maintenance were performed by the descendants of the priestly family, the Kohanim. It would seem, then, that the majority of the information presented has little relevance to the average person, who is not of priestly lineage. However, all the Jewish people are, in truth, considered Kohanim, as the verse states:

“And you shall be unto me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”[1]

Each detail of the Temple service is actually an instruction for us in how to conduct our lives and draw closer to the Divine.

One of the priestly services performed in the Holy Temple involved clearing the excess ashes which accumulated upon the altar.[2] First, the priest would remove a shovelful of ashes from the interior of the altar and place it on the east of the ramp which led to the top of the altar. That would conclude the service of “haramas hadeshen,” or “lifting of the ashes,” which was the opening ritual of the new day’s service in the Temple. Afterwards, the priest would change out of his priestly garments, into other, less distinguished ones, and remove the rest of the ashes to the outside of the camp, to a pure place.

The purpose of the wardrobe shift seems fairly straightforward. Removing the ashes was bound to be a rather messy job, and dirtying the priestly garments would be neither appropriate nor respectful. However, a quick analysis of the duties performed by the priests within the Temple boundaries reveals that the regular services were not any more tidy. The priests would slaughter the animals for sacrifices, receive the blood, sprinkle it on the altar, and finally clear the ashes–any one of which could conceivably stain the priest’s clothing. Why did the priest have to change his outfit in order to bring the ashes to the outskirts of the camp?

To address this question, Rashi offers an illustration:[3] A servant would not wear the same clothes to cook a meal for his master as he would to pour him wine. When a servant is in his master’s presence, a greater degree of deportment and formality is expected of him. Similarly, the Torah wishes to draw a distinction between service performed in the Holy Temple, in direct proximity to the Divine presence, and service performed outside its boundaries, where G-d’s presence is not as manifest.

In keeping with Rashi’s illustration, it would seem more appropriate to have another kohen altogether perform the task of bringing the ashes to the outskirts of the camp. After all, in a royal household, wouldn’t cook and valet usually be two distinct positions filled by two separate individuals? The fact that the very same kohen performed both duties gives us an insight into the true meaning of Divine service.

It often seems that certain roles in life are crowned with distinction and renown. We perform them in a dignified setting, while dressed in an expensive suit. When we are called upon to fulfill such functions, we feel graced with prestige and importance. Then there are other tasks, which are plainly inferior and undignified. They are executed far from the limelight, are often thankless or boring, and carry none of the ego-massaging perks of a more public role. We tend to shun such jobs, or at least fulfill them grudgingly and half-heartedly. Compared to a dazzling, celebrated position, what inspiration is there in, well, taking out the garbage?

Yet the true Divine servant knows how to master both these tasks. He can shift effortlessly between the distinguished service within the Holy Temple, where the divine presence is so palpably manifest, to the more mundane task of clearing the ashes, which involves removing oneself from the arena of holiness and entering the ordinary world. He can perform both with the same fervor, for he understands that both roles are equally important in the fulfillment of the Divine will. His personal drive for ego gratification takes a back seat to G-d’s desire for a dwelling place on Earth.

This same teaching applies just as well to our interpersonal relationships. There are certain individuals whose association seems to enhance our own status and advance our own agendas. We feel stimulated in their presence and delight in their company. Then there are others who make us plainly uncomfortable. We perceive them as the bores, the rejects, the pathetic misfits and loners of our society. They may need our listening ear or compassionate heart, but we have little or no patience for their demands. After all, we have far more important matters to occupy our time. To step down to their level, and even “change our garments,” by investing ourselves in them and attempting to view the world through their vantage point, is simply too challenging to our fragile social position.

Yet as a true “priestly nation,” it is precisely these individuals whose company we should seek out and attempt to befriend. G-d relates to each of us in a reciprocal fashion. The more we are willing to “step down” on behalf of another person, the more G-d bends from His lofty dimension to interest Himself in our needs, as we will experience in the very near future, when G-d will personally lead each individual by the hand out of our personal exile, towards the complete Redemption.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Shabbos Parshas Tzav, vol. 37, pp. 1-6

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Chaya Shuchat.

[1]. Yisro 19:6.

[2]. Tzav 6,3-4.

[3]. Rashi on Tzav 6:4.


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