Priestly Imposters

Dena Weiss

Parashat Tzav

Parashat Tzav teaches that one of the core responsibilities of the kohanim was to remove the ashes of the olah sacrifice from the altar every morning, terumat hadeshen.1 Although it was dirty work to clear away the sacrificial remains, it was also holy work which the kohen performed while wearing priestly clothes. The uniform that the kohen wears teaches us a tremendous amount about how challenging it can be to take on roles of power and responsibility. We often feel like impostors, unsuited to represent what we are being asked to represent or serve in the way that we need to serve. Seeing how the kohanim were able to dress for and succeed in their roles of religious leadership can teach us how to overcome our sense that we just aren’t good enough and become the people we can and need to be.

The garments which the Torah mentions explicitly2 are to be worn for this job are the pants, which are the basic undergarment of the kohen, and the ketonet,3 the long tunic that the kohen would wear which covered his entire body:

ויקרא ו:ג-ד
וְלָבַשׁ הַכֹּהֵן מִדּוֹ בַד וּמִכְנְסֵי בַד יִלְבַּשׁ עַל בְּשָׂרוֹ וְהֵרִים אֶת הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת הָעֹלָה עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ: וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים וְהוֹצִיא אֶת הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל מָקוֹם טָהוֹר:

 

VaYikra 6:3-4
And the priest will wear his linen cloak and he shall wear linen pants upon his body. He will remove the ashes from what the fire ate of the burnt offering on the altar and place it next to the altar. He would remove his garments and wear other garments and then remove the ashes to a pure place located outside the camp.

 

The connection between the priest and his uniform is very pronounced in these verses. The clothing that he wears is described in the possessive as “his cloak” and “his garments.” And the article of clothing understood to be the tunic, is not referred to by the standard term ketonet, bur rather as middo bad, his linen cloak. This is so, as the midrash Sifra explains, because the language of middo actually denotes a critical feature of the ketonet, that it must fit the body of the priest precisely:

ספרא צו פרק ב, פרשה א
ולבש הכהן מדו בד. ["מדו"] - כמדתו.

 

Sifra Tzav, Chapter 2, Section 1
And the priest will wear his linen cloak. His cloak4 (middo) like his measurements (k’middato).

 

According to the Sifra, the priestly tunic is the exact size of the priest, designed for him individually. This can be understood in terms of the practical implications—if the garment were too small, the priest might expose his skin in ascending the altar, which is considered to be disrespectful.5 If the garment is too large, then it could get dirty or make the priest look sloppy in his duties.6 However, both of these concerns would seem to apply even more to the mikhnasayyim, the undergarments that the priest wears, yet the term middo applies only to his outer cloak! The fact that it is specifically the outer garment of the kohen that needs to be sewn to size points to the possibility that the fit of the garment is significant beyond its practical benefits. It is about how the kohen appears to himself and to others.

As we see in Massekhet Zevahim, the clothing of the kohen is intrinsically bound up not only with his priestly duties, but also with his priestly identity.

תלמוד בבלי זבחים יז:
אמר רבי אבוה אמר רבי יוחנן ומטו בה משמיה דרבי אלעזר ברבי שמעון דאמר קרא וחגרת אותם אבנט אהרן ובניו וחבשת להם מגבעות והיתה להם כהונה [לחקת עולם] (שמות כט:ט). בזמן שבגדיהם עליהם כהונתם עליהם - אין בגדיהם עליהם אין כהונתם עליהם. 

 

Talmud Bavli Zevahim 17b
R. Abuha said in the name of R. Yohanan, and it has also come in the name of R. Eliezer b. R. Shimon, that which the verse says: And you shall gird Aharon and his sons with a belt, and you shall dress their heads with turbans and the priesthood shall be for them [an everlasting law] (Shemot 29:9). At the time that their clothes are upon them, their priesthood is upon them, when their clothes are not upon them, their priesthood is not upon them.

 

Although the function of R. Abuha’s statement is to teach that the kohen must wear the appropriate clothes in order to perform the sacrificial service, his statement can also be read more literally. R. Abuha teaches that the moment when the kohen puts on his garments is significant and transitional. Though the status of priesthood is passed down genealogically from kohen to kohen, there is still a significant act of investiture that happens when the kohen steps into his uniform. The kohen is, in fact, not truly and fully a kohen before he puts on these clothes. The act of dressing the part allows the kohen to play the role that he is called to play and uniquely equipped to perform.

At first, the kohen might feel like an impostor, acting like an angelic worker in the precincts of the holy when in fact he is “just” a human being. But wearing the special priestly clothes and donning his uniform allows him to transcend this feeling. When he dresses like a kohen, it enables him to fully become a kohen, to perform the divine service. And through the process of serving, of doing the avodah, the clothing becomes truly his. In the verses from our parashah cited above, first the clothing is described in terms of its size—the size of the kohen who wears it, middo and its material—linen. After the kohen actually serves in the clothing, it is referred to simply as “his clothing.” Through his inhabiting of the clothes and the role they represent, the garments now reflect and truly belong to him.

Of course, a person can only become a kohen if he already contains the genetic potential, but potential is not enough. Sometimes we need to act out who we want to be in order to become the people we are destined to become.

It is not only kohanim who might suffer from “imposter syndrome,” a feeling of being unworthy of their task, and who need to encourage themselves to actualize their potential. Our most famous leader, Moshe Rabbeinu himself, was notoriously afraid to step into his role as the redeemer of Benei Yisrael from Egypt. However, God reassures Moshe that though he himself does not think he is capable, God knows that he will succeed:

שמות ג:יא-יב
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם: וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ וְזֶה לְּךָ הָאוֹת כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת הָעָם מִמִּצְרַיִם תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה:  

 

Shemot 3:11-12
Moshe said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring Benei Yisrael out of Egypt?” [God] said, “For I will be with you. And this will be your sign that I have sent you, when you bring the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

 

God’s promise to Moshe that He will be with him feels reassuring and hopeful, however the sign that God gives to Moshe is quite strange. Moshe’s sign that he was the right messenger will come only after he emancipates the people. Once they have already left Egypt, they will accompany Moshe to the place where he was appointed and serve God there. God’s sign to Moshe that he will be successful comes only after he has been successful. God teaches Moshe that through obeying his calling he will achieve his goal, but Moshe won’t know who he is to become until after he says, “Yes.” He is only worthy to be the leader of the people after he steps up and begins leading them.

A similar dynamic confronts R. Elazar ben Azaryah when he was appointed to be the head of the academy after the deposition of Rabban Gamliel,7 who was the head before him.

תלמוד בבלי ברכות כז:-כח.
...אלא נוקמיה לר' אלעזר בן עזריה- דהוא חכם והוא עשיר והוא עשירי לעזרא ...אתו ואמרו ליה- ניחא ליה למר דליהוי ריש מתיבתא? אמר להו איזיל ואימליך באינשי ביתי. אזל ואמליך בדביתהו. אמרה ליה- דלמא מעברין לך? אמר לה [לשתמש אינש] יומא חדא בכסא דמוקרא ולמחר ליתבר. אמרה ליה- לית לך חיורתא! ההוא יומא בר תמני סרי שני הוה. אתרחיש ליה ניסא ואהדרו ליה תמני סרי דרי חיורתא. 

 

Talmud Bavli Berakhot 27b-28a
…[The sages said], “Let’s appoint R. Elazar ben Azaryah for he is wise and wealthy and he is a tenth generation descendant from [the scribe] Ezra.”... They came and said to him, “Does it please the master to be the head of the academy?” He said to them, “I will go and consult with my household.” He went and consulted with his wife. She said to him, “Maybe they will depose you!” He said to her, “Let a person use a fine glass for one day though it breaks the next!” She said to him, “But you don’t have white hair!” On that day he was eighteen years old. A miracle occured and eighteen rows of white hair appeared on [his head.]8 

 

R. Elazar ben Azaryah is not ready to be the head of the academy. He is young and inexperienced, and the academy itself is in turmoil. His wife cautions him against stepping into this role which may prove to be inappropriate for him. But R. Elazar ben Azaryah is not deterred. He decides that he would rather try and fail than decline the offer of leadership. In this story, by miraculously whitening his hair God provides R. Elazar ben Azaryah with the uniform for him to put on and grow into. This happens once R. Elazar ben Azaryah makes it clear that he is ready to act like a leader. Then God helps him pave the path to be the leader in fact. Despite his wife’s reasonable concerns, R. Elazar ben Azaryah becomes the head of the academy and remains in that position.

At the end of the parashah, the theme of being willing to take on and succeed in the demanding role of the priesthood returns when the text testifies, ויעש אהרן ובניו את כל הדברים אשר צוה ה' ביד משה, Aharon and his sons did all of the things that God commanded through Moshe (VaYikra 8:36). Rashi explains that this verse comes to praise the kohanim for not deviating at all from the instructions they were given:

רש"י ויקרא ח:לו
ויעש אהרן ובניו. להגיד שבחן שלא הטו ימין ושמאל.  

 

Rashi VaYikra 8:36
Aharon and his sons did. To praise them that they did not distort (lit. incline) to the right or the left.9 

 

The Hatam Sofer10 asks why the verse and Rashi’s explanation of it are necessary. Is it conceivable that Aharon and his children would disobey God’s command?! In his answer he reads Rashi’s language carefully, noting that the way he describes fidelity to the command is “not turning to the right or left”:

דרכם של הרבה אנשים, אם מכבדים אותם באיזה כיבוד של מצוה, מראים סימני היסוס,11 כביכול מתוך ענווה, ומטים בכתפיהם על ימין ושמאל, אבל אהרן ובניו, משהתכבדו מאת ה' בעשיית המצוה, מיד ויעש אהרן את כל הדברים אשר צוה ה'.  

 

It is the way of many people, if they are to be awarded the honor of performing a mitzvah, that they demonstrate signs of hesitation as if out of modesty and they turn right and left with their shoulders. But when Aharon and his sons were honored by God with the performance of a mitzvah, immediately, Aharon and his sons did all of the things that God commanded.

 

The Hatam Sofer explains that what Rashi is pointing to is not the fidelity of the kohanim in executing the demands, but rather their bravery and alacrity in accepting their task. According to the Hatam Sofer, the significant achievement, the moment we need to pay attention to is not the point of successful completion of a task, but the point at which a person agrees to start it. Your priesthood begins when you agree to try and the more willing and confident you allow yourself to be, the more successful you are likely to become.

Although we may not all have priestly lineage, we are a kingdom of priests often called to become greater than we already are. The priests in our parashah should inspire us to overcome our sense of being an impostor, our concern that people will see us as incompetent or unworthy and instead embrace a “fake it till you make it” approach. At first, the clothes will feel ill-fitting and we will feel inferior to the task. Eventually the clothes will become us and we will fully inhabit our more accomplished selves. When faced with an ask or a task, don’t worry about whether or not you are already able to do it, but whether or not you could become able. Then take it on and watch yourself grow in ability and change in identity.


1 VaYikra 6:1-4.

2 There is a dispute as to whether the kohanim wore the basic belt and turban as well.

3 According to Rashi to VaYikra 6:3.

4 This is not a Rabbinic invention. Both Strong’s and the Brown Driver Briggs lexicons assume that middo, as garment, comes from the word madad, to measure. Although this term is used elsewhere in Tanakh to refer to priestly clothing (see Shoftim 3:16), this is the only place in the Torah itself where it is mentioned.

5 VaYikra 20:26 forbids ascending to the altar by stairs lest one’s nakedness be exposed.

6 See Yoma 23 where we learn that the reason why the kohen changes his clothes after taking out the ashes is to be clean and presentable for the rest of the service.

7 Rabban Gamliel is deposed in the wake of a conflict between him and R. Yehoshua about whether or not the evening prayer, Arvit is obligatory. Rabban Gamliel asserted his authority too aggressively so the Rabbis of the academy deposed him.

8 Incidentally, this gray hair which gave R. Elazar ben Azaryah the look of sagacity is said to explain why he says “I am like 70 years old” in the passage that is now familiar from the Haggadah about reciting the story of the exodus both at night and during the day. See the continuation of this Talmudic passage.

9 Cf. Devarim 17:11.

10 R. Moshe Schreiber (1762–1839) Germany. Schreiber means scribe; Sofer is an Hebraicized version of his last name.

11 In fact, the Talmud on Berakhot 34a instructs that a person should perform this type of pseudo-humble refusal when asked to lead the community in prayer. First, they should refuse, then they should hesitate, and then they should start moving towards the lectern.