Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh is a direct continuation of last week’s, Teruma. They both deal with instructions for building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the temporary temple that accompanied the Children of Israel in their wanderings, the ritual utensils it contained, and the special clothing worn by the kohanim (priests). In some years, these two parashot are read together on the same Shabbat. This year, Tetzaveh is read separately, giving us the opportunity to focus on some of the subjects that are unique to it.
The purpose of the special clothing worn by the kohanim is clearly explained in the Torah. G-d instructs Moses:
“You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory” (Exodus 28, 2). When reading the parasha, we see that the Torah pays a lot of attention to the beauty of the clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest).
They should be beautiful, inlaid with precious gems; the material should be artfully woven from thread interlaced with precious materials, in gold, silver, azure, and crimson.
The great attention to the beauty of the kohen’s clothing makes us wonder. We are used to thinking that quality people are those who are unique in the internal content of their personalities, not those who are outstanding in their beautiful clothing. The focus on external beauty seems embarrassing. Is it so important for the Kohen Gadol serving in the Temple to be gloriously dressed?
The section about the kohen’s clothing directs us to the concept that even what seems to us to be external, superficial, and worthless – is not necessarily so. When beauty exists in a place that is worthy of it, when it serves a purpose and does not come instead of inner completeness, it is suitable and admirable.
The book of Proverbs (31, 30) states the following wise thought, “Charm is false and beauty is futile; a G-d-fearing woman is to be praised.” Anyone with life experience can relate to this. External beauty is false and futile. Internal beauty, represented in this verse as being G-d fearing, is what should be praised. Though it is human nature to be attracted to external beauty, a realistic reflection shows that beauty can be destructive if and when it comes on account of internal virtue.
One of the greatest Jewish sages of the 18th century, the Vilna Gaon (1720 – 1797) asks about the number of verses in the Torah that make positive mention of the beauty of the nation’s matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. If beauty is false and futile, why does the Torah make note of the fact that the matriarchs were beautiful?
The Vilna Gaon then answers that there is nothing negative about beauty. Furthermore, external beauty, when it matches internal beauty, has advantages. Beauty that stems from internal completeness, from what is sacred, is beauty that is worthy and should be praised. A G-d fearing woman, explains the Vilna Gaon, should be praised, also for her beauty! Why? Because Judaism does not disconnect materialistic reality from spiritual values. Judaism does not dissociate the sacred from the mundane. Actually, external appearance should strive to match what is sacred, internal, and ideological.
When external beauty stands alone, disconnected from true quality, it is a disgrace. But when the internal quality is reflected externally, and beauty matches real spiritual values – it is worthy of praise.