When I was 22 years old I applied for a job as a movement worker at RSY-Netzer. This was a one-year position for graduates of the youth movement who were just completing university. It was a job for which there was no uniform, and people would normally wear jeans and a sweatshirt. And although I was being interviewed by my peers, people I had known for years, and they would in all likelihood be wearing jeans; I felt it was important to wear a jacket and tie for my first real job interview. I felt ridiculous arriving at the Sternberg Centre dressed so formally, and I was significantly more formally dressed then any of my interviewers. But I felt there was a way that a person should dress for a job interview, even in this context.
This week, following on from all of the instructions about how the Mikdash (Tabernacle) should be constructed, we move into the clothing which the Cohanim (Priests) should wear to serve in it. No expense is spared in designing the uniform for this most significant position. They should have ‘a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash’ (Exodus 28:4). And these will not be thrown together from materials found lying around the wilderness, they will require: ‘the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen’ (Exodus 28:5).
In this outfit one can imagine that the Priests would have been instantly recognisable anywhere in the camp. Not even Moses had this kind of uniform. And perhaps it is appropriate that people serving in the sacred space, which God is set to inhabit, should be dressed accordingly.
Mark Twain famously said: ‘Clothes make the man.’ And one can imagine that dressed in their priestly garb Aaron and his sons would have felt able to serve God. Wearing these clothes a person would feel like a Priest. I think about the way that I feel when I wear white on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I feel ready to serve as a Rabbi on these most holy days.
There are five people named to fulfil this priestly function: ‘Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar’ (Exodus 28:1) – Aaron and his sons. A few weeks from now, when we read the Torah portion of Shemini we will read about Nadav and Avihu. They brought strange fire into the Mikdash, and as a result they were consumed by a fire and died (Leviticus 10:1-2). Their clothing is not mentioned. But something in their actions appears to have been inappropriate, and God exacts the ultimate punishment. In their priestly clothing they may have felt prepared to serve in the Mikdash. But when they failed to behave appropriately, the clothing offered no protection; and was, in all likelihood, consumed along with them in the fire.
The story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us of the importance of what is on the inside. All the text tells us is that they brought ‘strange fire’, nothing else is mentioned. The text does not suggest that they were dressed inappropriately. Even though they looked like Priests, when their behaviour fell below what was expected, God exacted the ultimate punishment.
It felt appropriate to wear a suit for my RSY-Netzer job interview, but I would hope that my behaviour, rather than the suit, got me the job. The Priestly clothing described in this week’s Torah portion is important, but the behaviour of the people wearing them was always more significant. Clothes may help someone feel like ‘the man’. But ultimately it is the actions of a person which define how they are, and will be, regarded.