Parashat Tzav / Shabbat Zahor

Leviticus 6:1–8:36

March 19, 2011 / 13 Adar II 5771

This week's commentary was written by Michelle Lynn-Sachs, assistant professor of Jewish Education, JTS.


My three-year-old daughter is obsessed with her clothes. Thank goodness, the obsession doesn't take the form of label consciousness or judging herself or others by the clothes they wear. What seems to capture her attention is choosing the appropriate outfit for the occasion, with special attention paid to being sure all of the required pieces are included. Every night at bedtime, she asks what she will be doing the next day, and she picks her outfit accordingly. She knows that some clothes are right for school, some clothes are right for swimming lessons, and some clothes are right for Shabbat. She methodically and dutifully ensures that no part of the outfit is forgotten, reviewing her selections to be certain that she has included everything she will wear from head to toe. If she later realizes that she has forgotten to lay out one element, like a pair of socks, you can be sure that she will call out to us from her bed to come correct this grievous oversight. Although it adds time to the bedtime routine, I love observing her careful preparations for her day and her attempts to match not only the top to the bottom but also the clothes to the occasion.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Tzav, shares my daughter's concern with the details of clothing, and of choosing the right clothes for the occasion. Overall, the parashah contains a variety of detailed instructions to the Israelite priests regarding how they are to perform the sacrificial rites. Included in these instructions are detailed descriptions of what they are to wear as they go about their duties. Significant mention of clothing occurs twice in the parashah: once at the beginning, as part of the instructions for what to do with the ashes resulting from a sacrifice, and once at the end, in a description of the public ceremony to invest Aaron and his sons as priests.

In the first instance, God tells Moses to command Aaron and his sons to wear specific and sacralized linen vestments while they are cleaning the ashes from the ritual of the burnt offering, then to change into different garb when removing those same ashes to a place outside the camp. Nehama Leibowitz points us to a puzzling dilemma arising from the text and its rabbinic commentaries. On the one hand, we are told that the priests should dress in holy garments for even the seemingly menial—and dirty—task of clearing ashes; the very next instruction, though, is for the priests to change into still different garments before removing those same ashes from the camp. Why are holy garments required for the first step, but different garments for the second step?

One way to reconcile this dilemma is to consider in whose presence the priest will perform these two duties. The first step, clearing the ashes, takes place within the sacred space of the altar, where the priest is only in the presence of God; in this case, Rabbenu Bayha ben Asher teaches that wearing holy garb serves as a reminder to the priest of his sacred, exalted role in service of God. The second step, the removal of the ashes, takes the priest out into the community, where he will be seen by common Israelites; Rabbenu Bahya ben Ibn Pakuda teaches that the instruction to wear inferior clothes can be understood as a reminder to the priest to present himself with humility among his community.

Viewed in this way, the instructions to wear two separate sets of clothes—one holy, one less so—act to create some balance in the priests' understanding of self. These men are just people, but they have been given sacred tasks that are critical to the well-being of their community and its standing with God; as the first generation of priests, they will be the first to navigate how to present themselves not only to God but to their fellow Israelites. Instructions about what to wear for different occasions—even "taking out the trash"—might have provided them with both practical and moral guidance.

Where the parashah's first mention of clothing is brief and balanced, the second is much more detailed and adds some narrative drama to the text. The parashah concludes with a dramatic account of the public ceremony in which Moses anoints Aaron and his sons as priests. On God's command, the ceremony takes place in view of the entire community. The ceremony begins with Moses washing the men. From this naked, humbled state, Moses begins the process of dressing them, almost fashioning them into the priests they are becoming. Aaron is clothed first, presumably to distinguish him as the high priest, while it seems that his sons wait in public, unclothed. Moses methodically clothes each man, adding each garment and accessory one at a time, then adding droplets of oil and sacrificial blood to the clothes, until finally they are transformed from their humbled, naked state into resplendently adorned priests. The clothes help these men see themselves in terms of their new identity, and the process of dressing them in public serves to transform them in the eyes of their community as well.

Parashat Tzav reminds us that our mundane, daily activities can play a role in shaping our selves, both our public presentation of self and our private understanding of self. It reminds us that what is appropriate in one circumstance is not appropriate in another, that context matters and visual symbols create real meaning. In my own life, my daughter is still learning to match her clothes: literally, she is learning that not every part of an outfit needs to be striped in order to match and, figuratively, she is in the process of learning that some clothes are right for some occasions but not others. As it is for many her age, dress-up is her favorite activity at preschool. I think that's because it's an activity that enables her to feel fancy even while playing with Play-Doh. Unlike the priests, she doesn't have to choose between the humble and the exalted.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.