We’re dealing with the rules of the priestly clothing: an epic dress code that involves crimson and gold, linen and wool, a tunic, sash, and robe. What you have to remember is that there isn’t an H&M in the deserts of the Biblical Middle East, so making garments like this was a serious undertaking. It was worth it, because the priests served a pretty heavy function, creating a sacred space for the lay person to make sacrifices to G-d. Parshat Tetzaveh is interesting because it reflects the same idea as last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah. Terumah instructs the Hebrews to build a Tabernacle that is just as labor intensive as Tetzaveh’s Priestly Makeover. It’s like G-d wants the priests to look like the Tabernacle! And by dressing like the place of worship, the priests become a part of it. Seems vain, but it’s an important part of human nature.
What we wear can actually change our personality.
The best example I can give is of a friend of mine*. When I first met her, she wore a headscarf (common among married Orthodox women) and some kind of funny Jewish tee shirt everywhere she went. She wasn’t Orthodox, but she liked the idea of modesty and being a physical example of Orthodox Jewish feminism. One day, I went over to her house and noticed she was wearing jeans, a plain shirt, and didn’t have her head covered. I assumed it was because she was in her own house and didn’t care. But later, she began acting really strange. She wasn’t her usual, upbeat self. In fact, she was miserable. I asked her several days later about it, and she said that she was going through a spiritual crisis and couldn’t bring herself to wear all that Jewish clothing. She felt fake in them. Several weeks later, she and her family came over to my house for Shabbat, and she was smiling, laughing, and being her usual self. She was also wearing her outfit again. In private she said, “I just needed to put the uniform back on. I needed to force myself. And when I did, I was able to get back into G-d.” Tetzaveh shows our weakness toward aesthetics: our need to “play dress up” and see those in power over us looking nicer than us. But the great thing about the Torah is that it focuses these human needs in the right direction. If you’re going to look up to someone for the way they dress, they better be serving a great function in the community. Hence, the priests and their garments. It’s a heck of a lot better to look up at someone who looks awesome and is awesome, than to look up to a well dressed jerk. Lord knows that, and that’s why we have Parshat Tetzaveh.
*This is a dramatization, to protect the innocent.