How do the Kohen’s garments atone?

By Rabbi Y.M. Sabo
Parashat Tzav

This week’s parashah is Tzav. Beside the korbanot, sacrifices, another topic of the parashah is the garments of the Kohen (priest).

The Gemara in tractate Erchin expounds on the juxtaposition of passages from the weekly Torah portion. The Torah writes (Leviticus 7:37–8:2):

“The Torah for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the consecration offering and the sacrifice of peace offerings, which Hashem commanded Moshe on Mount Sinai on the day he commanded the children of Israel to present their offerings to Hashem in the wilderness of Sinai.

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments and the anointing oil and the bull of the sin offering and the two rams and the basket of unleavened bread.’”

The sages expounded on this matter (Erchin 16a):

Rabbi Anani bar Shushan said: Why is the section of the priestly garments juxtaposed to the section of the sacrifices? To tell you: Just as the sacrifices atone, so too the priestly garments atone. The tunic atones for bloodshed … .The turban atones for haughtiness… The robe atones for slanderous speech, as the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let something that involves sound come and atone for the action of sound….

The Gemara is perplexed. How do the garments atone? The atonement of the garments is not understood. A person speaks slander, God forbid. The Kohen puts on the robe — and their sin is atoned for? They continue to speak slander and the robe atones for all the sin? How does the act of the Kohen wearing the garments atone for the sin of the individual?

Rabbi Kook explains that the garments of the Kohen are not just practical attire, but also a hint to deep spirituality. Harav writes that the garments symbolize all the traits and behaviors of a person. An example of this is that the robe represents modest and pious behavior, as it atones for slander, which is a transgression between a person and their fellow.

So when the Kohen wears the robe, it reminds us of the obligation to maintain a moderate and modest behavior among us and thus atones for the sin of slander. To answer our question, the atonement happens due to the fact that the garments trigger a behavior change; the garments of the Kohen are so impactful that the person gazing at the Kohen and the garments will change and better his/her actions. But this is only the first step. The behavioral improvement will definitely make a better future but how will it cover for the past?

The profound message is that a person not only influences themselves and their surroundings through their traits and behaviors but also affects the broader spiritual world.

Thus, the Kohen becomes a representative force for spiritual rectification and his individual actions serve as a tool for proper behavior and the repair of the world. By connecting the individual action to its spiritual implications, Rabbi Kook paints a picture of a world where individual actions influence the human and spiritual connection.

With such an amazing understanding we should feel empowered: Our actions are changing the world. Every small action counts. Every mitzvah, every act of chesed, Torah study and prayer makes the world a better place.

And from looking around at the world right now, it seems that we have much more to do to make things better.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Y.M. Sabo serves Congregation Tiferet Israel.

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