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Parshat Ahareh-Mot: The Lesson of the White and Gold Garments

We read in Parashat Ahareh-Mot of the special service which the Kohen Gadol would perform on Yom Kippur in the Bet Ha’mikdash. One of the many fascinating features of this service is the special garments worn by the Kohen Gadol. Yom Kippur marked the only time any human being would enter the Kodesh Ha’kodashim – the innermost chamber in the Bet Ha’mikdash – and before entering the Kohen Gadol would change out of his ordinary priestly vestments and wear plain white clothes. The reason, as the Gemara explains, is “En Kategor Na’asa Sanigor,” which literally means, “A prosecutor cannot become a defender.” The standard garments of the Kohen Gadol contained gold, and gold is reminiscent of the Egel Ha’zahab (the golden calf). And thus as the Kohen Gadol enters the sacred chamber to beseech G-d for compassion and forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people, he must not wear gold garments, which bring to mind the grievous sin of the golden calf. He therefore changes out of his ordinary gold vestments and wears special white garments when he enters the Kodesh Ha’kodashim.

The question, however, arises, why does the Kohen Gadol wear his ordinary gold garments for the rest of the Yom Kippur service, when he is not in the Kodesh Ha’kodashim? If wearing these garments will have the adverse effect of bringing to mind the golden calf, then why does the Kohen Gadol not avoid them altogether throughout the entirety of the Yom Kippur service?

Many stories are told of great Sadikim who always looked to see the positive, admirable qualities of their fellow Jews. The most famous of these is likely the great Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yishak of Berditchev (1740-1809), who always came to the defense of other Jews. It is told that once on Tisha B’Ab he happened to pass by a gentile-owned eatery and saw a Jew sitting there and eating. The Rabbi approached him and asked if he was aware that it was Tisha B’Ab, when fasting was forbidden. The man apathetically answered that he was fully aware that it was a fast day. The Rabbi proceeded to ask if the man was aware of the fact that the food he was eating was non-kosher, and the man again calmly acknowledged that he knew he was eating non-kosher food.

Rav Levi Yishak turned to the heavens and said, “Master of world, look how wonderful Your children are! Even when they disobey You, they still speak the truth!”

Stories like this one are certainly inspiring and set a crucial example for us to follow, but they also raise an important question: what happened to the Torah obligation to reprimand our fellow Jew? In the next Parasha, Parashat Kedoshim, the Torah commands, “Hoche’ah Tochi’ah Et Amitecha,” that we must point out mistakes made by our fellow Jew in order to help them improve. Needless to say, this must only be done in a way and in a context that offers the realistic possibility of effecting positive change. If one has reason to suspect that his criticism would be ignored or rejected, then he must not say anything. Nevertheless, the fact that the Torah requires criticizing under the proper conditions necessarily means that we must take note of wrongful behavior, and we cannot always look only at the positive aspects of our fellow Jew. How, then, do we reconcile these two values – offering constructive criticism, and focusing our attention on the positive qualities of other people?

The answer can be found in the Yom Kippur service. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (1880-1966) commented that there is a difference between the way the Kohen Gadol approached G-d, and the way he appeared before the people. When he came before G-d, he, like Rav Levi Yishak of Berditchev, spoke only positively about the Jewish people. G-d does not want any of us complaining to him about His other children. He wants us to love and respect one another and pray for their wellbeing, without paying attention to their faults and mistakes. Therefore, the Kohen Gadol could not wear gold when he came before G-d. But outside the Kodesh Ha’kodashim, when the Kohen Gadol appeared before the people, it was certainly appropriate for him to wear gold and subtly remind the people of their sins and the need to improve. The gold garments that have no place in the Kodesh Ha’kodashim were perfectly acceptable and played an important role outside, when the Kohen Gadol faced the people.

The lesson of the Kohen Gadol’s garments, then, is that we must exercise great caution when casting judgments about our fellow Jew. On the one hand, if we see wrongful behavior and we are in a position to correct it, we are not only entitled, but obligated, to do what we can, in an appropriate manner and setting. Otherwise, however, when there is no practical purpose intended, we must follow Rav Levi Yishak’s inspiring example and look only for the admirable and praiseworthy qualities of all our fellow Jews.