Parashat Tetzaveh

This past Shabbat as my husband sliced the challah loaves into individual portions for each person around the table; I was struck by how counter-cultural and odd the ritual of hand washing and hamotzi is.  First of all, we were a group of two families of four (including four children), plus one additional adult, and we had been in the middle of a friendly and spirited discussion.  As we all lined up one by one to do netilat yadayim (ritual hand washing), each person in turn became silent after the hand washing as he or she returned to the table.  Then there we were, all eyes on the challah, waiting for the bracha (blessing) and for the challah to be sliced, salted, and distributed.  It was the type of thing that can go unnoticed because of its very regularity and everydayness- after all, week after week, Shabbat after Shabbat, we go through the same motions, rarely stopping to think about why or really turning our thoughts to being grateful for our meal as we wait for the assembled to gather at the table for hamotzi.
When I teach my students about the reason for netilat yadayim and the salting of the bread, I always explain that we are imitating the priests.  Just as the priests had a special hand washing ritual prior to offering sacrifices, and just as they salted their sacrifices, so too do we imitate their actions before our meal.  Since we no longer have a Temple, the table is our altar, and our meals with our loved ones are our offering to G-d.  They are actually a holy ritual in themselves—ritual meals, for the purpose of serving G-d.  And we are the priests.  Without a Temple, each person is a priest in his or her own home, while in many synagogues those of priestly lineage (cohanim) are still given special honors.  Sitting around the table this past Shabbat I was acutely aware of how unusual it is in typical American culture for a table of adults and children simply to sit in silence while a ritual is performed before a meal.  For us it was nothing out of the ordinary but at that particular moment, for reasons of my own, I felt extremely grateful for the friends and family gathered around the table, for the food, and was moved by the religious symbolism of the ritual.
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the priestly garments.  Some of the garments were worn by all priests and some were worn by only the high priest, the cohen gadol.  The Talmud (Zevachim 88b) teaches,
 Why are the sections on sacrifices and the priestly vestments written next to each other? To teach you: as sacrifices make atonement, so do the priestly vestments make atonement.  The tunic atoned for bloodshed, for it is said, "And they killed a he-goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood" (Genesis 37:31).  The Breeches atoned for lewdness, as it is said, "And you shall make them linen breeches to cover the flesh of their nakedness" (Exodus 28:42).  The Turban made atonement for arrogance---let an article placed high up come and atone for an offence of hauteur.  The Sash atoned for [impure] meditations of the heart, beneath which it was placed.  The Breastplate atoned for neglect of civil laws, as it is said, "And you shall make a breastplate of judgment" (Exodus 28:15).  The Efod atoned for idolatry, as it is said, "Without efod or teraphim" (Hoseah 3:4).  The Cloak atoned for slander---let an article of sound (i.e., the bells on the Cloak's hem) atone for an offence of sound.  The Crown, worn on the forehead, atoned for brazenness... as it is written, "Yet you have a harlot's forehead" (Jeremiah 3:3).
            I am drawn to the concept of tactile ritual in general, and in ritual garments in particular.  This midrash reminds me of the mitzvah of tzit- tzit, the ritual fringes we wear as commanded in the Torah.  The tzit-tzit remind us to observe the commandments, while the cohen’s garments atoned for his transgressions.  These two concepts are related because they both take articles of clothing and imbue them with symbolism.  As I thought about this further, it occurred to me that just as we resemble the cohanim when we eat a meal, we too can resemble the cohanim as we get dressed.  And I don’t mean by dressing in a turban and ephod!  Some of the items of clothing we wear can remind us to stay away from sin, or alternatively, can remind us to repent for sins we have committed.
            A tunic (ketonet) is still worn today and is what we refer to as a shirt or blouse, and can still remind us to keep far from violence and bloodshed, and to pursue peace in our relationships. Michnasayim (pants or a skirt) can still remind us to keep our intimate relationships holy.  Although we do not wear turbans (mitznefet or migba’at), we do wear hats and other head coverings, and these can remind us of humility before G-d, just as the turban atoned for arrogance for the cohen.  The sash (avnet) can be like a neck-tie or a scarf; placed near the heart, it reminds us to keep an open and compassionate heart, just as the sash atoned for an impure heart/ impure meditations in the cohen.  The breastplate (choshen) was covered with gems- for us this could be any piece of jewelry, and can remind us to follow the Jewish commandments and civil laws, just as the breastplate atoned for the sin of the cohen who did not follow the civil law. 
The ephod is like an apron that the priest wore around his waist, and the Talmud says it symbolized atonement for idolatry.  This might be similar to a belt, and can remind us not to make idols of things in our material world—our possessions, money, technology, or even our accomplishments.  The cloak (me’il) was an outer garment which for us can be like a jacket, a blazer, or a sweater or wrap and reminds us to guard our tongue from slander and gossip just as the cloak atoned for the cohen regarding sins of slander.  Lastly the crown (tzitz)- I would suggest this is similar to tefillin, kippot, or wearing a tallit over the head.  The Talmud says the crown (tzitz) atoned for brazenness, yet we already have the pants (michnasayim) which atone for lewdness and this seems to be too similar to me.  So let us say that the crown of the tefillin, kippah, or tallit, reminds us to keep our thoughts directed towards G-d, and to keep our kavanah, our intentions, pure.  While none of us wear all of these items every day, we can certainly use the ritual of daily dressing as an opportunity not just to thank G-d for our clothing but to improve our selves and offer prayers of repentance for wrongdoing.  Much like with hand washing and hamotzi, this can take an everyday act and elevate it to the holy.