Monday, March 10, 2014

Priestly fashions—what's trending this season? / Parshat Tzav

In second grade, I assumed that my teacher lived at the school. After all, that’s the only place I saw her. In third grade, a friend and I rode our bikes through her neighborhood and passed my social studies teacher, gardening in her front yard. What a shock! She lived in a house and had a life outside school. I suppose that wouldn’t come as a surprise to children these days. Yet the students of Jim O’Connor, who teaches math at St. Francis High School in La Canada, California, knew nothing of their math teacher’s life outside school either. Mr. O’Connor, a Vietnam vet with short-cropped hair, an unexpressive face (at least in the classroom), and stern countenance, is a strict teacher. He doesn’t believe school can be fun. He expects students to work hard. He is not the sort to coddle anyone—or so his students thought, until one of them, Pat McGoldrick, discovered a hidden side to Mr. O’Connor, buried beneath his forbidding exterior.

In parshat Tzav we read about the consecration of Aaron as High Priest, and his sons as priests. In preparation for the ceremony, Moses dresses Aaron in the raiment of his office:

He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thumim. And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem—as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:7-9)

Appearance—the outside wrapping—is important. Talmud tells us that when it comes to the priesthood, the clothes make the man:

While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them. (BT Zevachim 17b)

This is particularly interesting because when it comes to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when the High Priest plays the central and decisive role in the nation’s ritual, we find something curious and anomalous. The High Priest had two sets of raiment: the “Golden Garments” and the “Linen Garments” between which he changed four times. At the outset of the day, the High Priest wore the sparkling, impressive, regal Golden Garments. Talmud (BT Yoma 23b) describes how he changed into the far plainer Linen Garments for the two occasions he would enter the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. The first time he entered to offer the blood of the atonement offering and the incense; the second time he entered to retrieve the incense censor. In between, he donned the Golden Garments.

The High Priest appears one way—robed in gold robes—in front of the people, but quite another way—dressed in simple linen garments—in God’s presence. All pretenses stripped away, his exterior revealing his inner self, the High Priest presented himself before God as himself.

Mr. O’Connor also presented a façade to his students: strict and demanding—outer garments of the man the students knew as stern and severe. But Pat McGoldrick, during a visit to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to arrange a blood drive, noticed that on a plaque listing the biggest blood donors, Mr. O’Connor’s name headed the list. He then discovered that Mr. O’Connor also comes to the hospital not to give blood, but to give love. He may not have coddled his students, but three days each week for 20 years, he has come to Children’s Hospital to cuddle, feed, and comfort babies whose parents cannot be with them. Beneath the gruff exterior is an altogether different man than Mr. O’Connor’s students thought they knew.

Perhaps the High Priest divested of his Golden Garments and donned simple, revealing linen garments because, before God, all is seen and all is known.

And perhaps the message for us is twofold: First, we sometimes think we know people, as Mr. O’Connor’s students believed they knew their calculus teacher to be gruff and cold. We know far less than we think, and this is especially true concerning the pain and burdens so many people carry with them through life. It is for this reason that our Sages taught dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf z’chut—judge everyone for merit, given them the benefit of the doubt.

The second message concerns us: We might be tempted to laud Mr. O’Connor’s quiet practice of chesed (loving kindness) as an act of humility, but that would probably be wrong. Mr. O’Connor, when interviewed by a reporter, said he didn’t want his tender and compassionate side revealed to his students, and that’s too bad. Pat McGoldrick said, “I’ve always respected him, but now it’s a different degree really, to the point where I try to emulate him. He’s the epitome of a man of service.” Perhaps we should hide less behind the trappings of our positions, jobs, titles, or stations in life, and be as the High Priest in the Holy of Holies: clothed in simpler garments and there to be of service.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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