“Do not judge by the vessel, but rather by what it contains” (Pirkei Avot 4:20).
We are taught from a young age not to “judge a book by its cover” and we teach our children to look deeper than just at the clothes someone is wearing. Yet just three verses into the sedra we find a whole chapter devoted to describing in detail the dress code of the High Priest, and Aaron’s need for clothing of “glory and splendour”. Fine linen, precious stones, gold, blue, purple and crimson coloured threads are among the designated materials for the construction of the robe, tunic, headdress and breastplate.We also learn that the Cohanim are only invested with their priesthood when wearing the appropriate garments. Are we to believe the proverb that clothes make the man? Or are we to focus on the words above and not “judge by the vessel”?
The key is to recognize that our outer garments should always be bigdei kodesh (sacred clothing), and that what makes our outer layers sacred is when they are true reflections of what is inside us. Chassidic teaching refers to our faculties of thought, speech and action as the three “garments” of the soul. The areas in which we choose to direct our thoughts, the things we say, and the way we act towards others and towards ourselves – these are the “clothes” we fashion for our souls.
Could the High Priest perform his duties appropriately if he entered the sanctuary in his everyday clothes? The sedra tells us that the special purpose of the clothing was “to sanctify him to serve Me.” On one level the garments serve as a demonstration of respect for God and for the act of prayer. But additionally, wearing special clothes for prayer has the effect of le’kadesho - showing honour and respect to oneself. We have all experienced the feeling of wearing special clothes to get us into the right mood for an event, whether joyous or sad.
Our shul-wear reminds us that we are dignified, respectful, and fulfilling a sacred duty. Mourners wear a ripped piece of clothing so that the tear within their souls is reflected on the outside. From ancient times until now, there is a constant truth that, while it is the contents of the vessel that should be judged, the outer layer can help us develop what is inside more fully and completely.