Melissa Cordish delivered this D’var Torah at the first gathering of ACHARAI Fellows Class VI
We are of course in the midst of the presidential primary season. Over and over we are bombarded with images of the candidates in their campaign uniforms: some combination of dark navy or grey suits, white shirts and typically red ties, red dresses and pantsuits for the women. The candidates finish the ensemble with an American flag lapel pin. Even Bernie Sanders, the Socialist anti-establishment figure, only distinguishes himself clothing-wise by the occasional button-down shirt or blue tie.
Why are all our candidates’ clothed in these de facto uniforms? Because clothes are not simply about fashion sense, but are a means to convey deeper values and principles. They are important because they carry symbolic significance to audiences. The dark suit gives the wearer a sense of authority and is meant to inspire a feeling that the leader is trustworthy and smart. Red is both patriotic and aggressive, suggesting a candidate who is decisive and bold, assertive, and a true American. I have also read that it indicates support for the military. And of course, the flag pin says “I love my country.”
But as Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” This week’s Parashah Tetzaveh from the book of Exodus provides detailed instructions about the vestments the priests, Aaron and his sons, were to wear during their priestly service in the Tabernacle. All of the priests are instructed to wear a tunic, a sash and linen breeches. Aaron, the high priest, additionally is to wear an ephod, a breastpiece, a robe, a frontlet and a headdress.
The Parasha describe a resplendent costume: colorful, bejeweled, made by craftsmen and artists of the finest materials and adorned with precious materials. Imagine the scene: The ephod is an apron made of gold, blue, purple and scarlet yarns and fine linen. Its two shoulder straps contain lazuli stones engraved with the names of the sons of Israel for remembrance of the Israelite people. The breastpiece is a square-shaped container made of gold and blue, purple and crimson yarns like the ephod. Set into the square are stones mounted in four rows, each of a different precious stone, each engraved with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The robe worn underneath the ephod is pure blue. Its hem is decorated with pomegranates of blue, purple and crimson yarns and ringed with golden bells. The frontlet is made of gold and engraved with “Holy to the Lord” suspended on a blue cord attached to the headdress and in front of the headdress.
This costume must have been both beautiful and impressive to behold. But, like the presidential candidates’ suits, these ensembles were not simply window dressing or aesthetics; they were intended to convey deeper levels of symbolism and meaning, and duty both to the High Priest, and to those who viewed him. And they continue to hold important lessons and reminders to us as contemporary leaders.
Like a judge’s robe or doctor’s white coat, the vestments of course indicated the wearer’s unique role in society, special skill set, and the higher level of respect he is due. Aaron’s garments identify him and his unique role to the people as one consecrated to God. To Maimonides, the 8 garments were integral to the Priests’ role, conferring actual priestly status themselves.
But as J.H. Hertz reminds us, the uniform was also a reminder of the obligations that their wearer took on. Literally, the heavy weight of the priestly garments were a constant reminder of the weighty importance of his duties. For Aaron, Hertz writes, “even more than the layman, he must make the ideal of holiness the constant guide of his life.” Likewise, Rabbi Peli writes the weight on his shoulders reminds Aaron “to be a loyal spokesman“ for the people. Thus the garments embody the balance the priests must achieve between their exalted, special role, and the humility needed to be a true servant of the people.
Even the ephod and breastplate, which were worn over the heart, were meant to teach both wearer and his audience. Rabbi Peli writes, “It seems that the design of the ephod and the breast plate is meant to teach us an important lesson about responsible leadership. There are many leaders who, after they are elected or chosen for high office, swiftly forget the people whom they are supposed to represent. The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were to be carried on the ‘shoulders’ of Aaron, so that he should never forget the burden of their needs.” They hang before the heart as a reminder to the priests that, as leaders, they serve the people, and not the other way around. Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mcklenburg likewise believes the bells, which sound as he walks, are another reminder to the High Priest that with each step he much serve the people and discharge his sacred duty as their representative.
As leader within our organizations, we do not have specified garments to wear during our service. (Although maybe we should! When thinking through this d’var Torah, I though maybe instead of an American flag pin, we should have an Acharai Fellows pin!) But we are chosen to a sacred duty. Each of us will ascend to lead an organization and help it carry out a crucial mission. This mantle of leadership we will take up will be heavy, too. We do not have an ephod or breastplate inscribed with the names of our constituents, or our fellow board or committee members; We will have to create our own habits or rituals to remind ourselves of the weight of the endeavor and of who we serve.
So with what can we wrap ourselves? Your experience in Acharai will be one critical metaphoric vestment that you will carry with you as become leaders. The Jewish wisdom that you will learn with Rabbi Israel will be like your ephod and breastplate. Like the bells on the High Priest’s robe, you will have one another, a fellowship, and a new language to remind you of all you learn. Ellen will guide you through theories of leadership, challenging you to recognize and break mental models and to lead change. You will work with your coaches on your personal leadership strengths and areas for growth, to hone your voice, develop humility, and bring your heart to this task.
Leadership has the capacity to be holy work, whether you wear an ephod, breastplate and headpiece, a business formal suit, or jeans and a sweater. I wish you all the best of luck and a wonderful journey together.