Enclothed in Mystery
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
It is interesting that the eighth parsha of Shemos should be a parsha that begins talking about the production of the shemen
zais-olive oil-used in the menorah. After all, Chanukah, a holiday of eight days is celebrated by lighting our menorahs filled
with shemen zais! Furthermore, the Kohen Gadol wore eight different types of clothing, and it was through the kohanim that
the miracle of Chanukah occurred. And if you count from the beginning of the Torah, then Tetzaveh is the twentieth
parsha, and the Talmud teaches that a menorah can't be placed higher than 20 amos (1 amah = 1.5 feet). Not just that, but the
thirty-six parsha in the Torah is Parashas BeHa'alosecha, which begins with the mitzvah to light the menorah as well,
and which the Ramban says is a direct allusion to Chanukah. We light a total of thirty-six candles over the course of
eight days! Enough with numbers for now ...
This parsha is concerned primarily with the clothing of the Kohanim, and their induction into the service of G-d. In Parashas
Yisro, we already discussed an aspect of the essence of what it means to be a kohen of the Jewish people, and its wider
application to the entire nation of Yisroel, who is called, "A Nation of Priests." I want to further explore the role of the Kohen
within the mission of the entire Jewish nation, and why the clothing he wears makes such a difference.
Modern psychology has yet to acknowledge what to every believing Jew is a fundamental of daily life: humans have souls. This
cannot be proved empirically, because the soul is beyond the grasp of the microscope and computer analysis. It is not physical,
and therefore, it cannot be tracked or traced. Belief in the soul is a matter of faith, and the only logical answer to the mystery of
life. It is the invisible source (battery pack, if you will) of life that leaves as secretly as it comes.
However, the soul itself is no mystery to the Jewish mystic, or Kabballist, who understands not just its implicit existence, but
even its make-up and how it functions. In the classic philosophical work by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto ("Ramchal"), The Way of G-d, five parts of the soul are identified (see page 181). They are, Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chia, and Yechida.
However, for all intents and purposes, the last two are so spiritual that we just about ignore them for now, and deal only with
the first three, which in short are referred to by their acrostic, NeRuN.
The idea is, the holier and more spiritual the level of soul, the more essential it is (i.e., the closer to G-d it is, and therefore more
internal). If you imagine your soul to be a like an onion, which consists of layer upon layer of onion, then, your Neshama would
be more toward the inside, and the Nefesh would be the most external part. In fact, the Neshama is called the neshama of the
neshama, or, the soul of the soul. In a sense, the nefesh is the "clothing" for the more inner levels of soul.
This hierarchy of three souls is a paradigm for all sets of three in Judaism. However, the one that concerns us now is the set of
three referred to as, Kohen, Levi, and Yisroel. By comparison, the Kohen represents the Neshama, Levi, the level of soul
called Ruach, and Yisroel, the Nefesh.
Even within the Jewish camp set-up in the desert, the outer "layer" was for the majority of the Jewish population referred to as
Yisroel, within which was Machane Levia, or the Levitical Camp, which surrounded the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, within which
only the Kohanim operated. But, like the souls themselves, this comparison only serves to make each level even more
interdependent, and to better define the roles of each within a unified and synergetic system.
According to the rabbis, the Neshama is considered the "breath of G-d," which is sent to us via the level called Ruach, into our
bodies in order to create the reality of Nefesh. It is analogous to a glassblower who blows down a tube to fill the molten glass
at the end with air to become a container. The Neshama is the "breath" of G-d, the Ruach is the "tube" through which he air is
funneled, and the molten glass is our body in which the Nefesh will reside. This is what it said in Bereishis: "And G-d breathed
a living soul into the man, and he became a living spirit."
If we understand the role of the Neshama, then we can also understand the role of the Kohen, is compared to the Neshama.
The role of the Neshama is to act as a spiritual "interface" between G-d and man. It is the beginning of the "pipe" through which
G-d's blessing passes on the way down to its ultimate recipient: the Nefesh, which resides in the body. So too do the kohanim
act as such a transitional point between G-d and the rest of the Jewish nation (evident also from their mitzvah to bless the entire
nation), to make possible the flow of G-d's blessing down to the "body" of the nation referred to as Yisroel. This is why the
demands on the Kohanim were so great, and why they are treated in a special manner.
This is also why the clothing of the Kohen Gadol was imbued with such meaning, as the Talmud points out (Zevachim 88b).
Each piece of clothing played a role in atoning for the Jewish people, as follows:
Kesonos (Inner Garments): against murder
Michnasayim (Pants): against illicit relationships
Miznefes (Turban): against haughtiness
Avneit (Belt): against illicit thoughts
Choshen (Breastplate): against incorrect judgments in law
Eiphod (Shoulder Pieces): against idol worship
Me'il (Robe): against loshon hora (true, but derogatory speech about others spoken in public)
Ketores (Incense): against loshon hora (true, but derogatory speech about others spoken in private)
So, though it is true that this parsha seems to be quite technical, and that it deals with laws that seem relevant only to a small
portion of the Jewish nation, and even for them these laws cannot be observed today, at least we can appreciate the important
role the kohanim played on behalf of the welfare of the entire Jewish nation. It can help us to develop an appreciation of what
we lack when we live without the Temple, and are unable to properly perform the Temple service.
But G-d has a way of compensating for what we can't do in the physical world. As the Talmud points out (Brochos 6a): one
who is set upon doing the mitzvah and is held back from completing it due to circumstances beyond his control, is looked upon
as one who actually did the act! In fact, this is what the Chanukah menorah and olive oil are supposed to remind us of each
The kohanim of that era had led the battle against the Greek-Syrian army, and after being successful against the odds, they ran
straight back to the Temple to rekindle the menorah that was supposed to burn continuously. However, they could only find
one pure vile of oil fitting to be used in the Temple menorah, which they promptly lit. They then set about the task of producing
more pure oil, which took eight days to do. The rest is history, and the message was monumental: You do everything you can
to fulfill My will in the physical world, and I will take care of seeing that it gets down in the spiritual world.
So, we may not have the Temple, the clothing of the kohanim, and the chance to actually perform the Temple service, but that
should not stop us from longing for it, and trying to compensate for the lack of it. In this merit, perhaps we will become the
generation to merit to see the return of the third and final Temple, and the blessings it will bring.
Have a great Shabbos
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston
and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston is a teacher and author of many books on Jewish philosophy
(hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston's Perceptions on the
Parsha, you may enjoy many of his books.