Anavah–Humility: The Breastplate of Anavah

Sources from essay by Rabbi Leah Lewis, MAJS in The Mussar Torah Commentary

When William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet at the turn of the seventeenth century, much of the worldly yet pithy advice that Polonius gave to his son Laertes–"The apparel oft proclaims the man"–had already been proved to be true. In many ways, the idea that "clothes make the man" takes its root in Parashat T'tzaveh.

-Rabbi Leah Lewis

(ב) וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃ (ג) וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־כׇּל־חַכְמֵי־לֵ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִלֵּאתִ֖יו ר֣וּחַ חׇכְמָ֑ה וְעָשׂ֞וּ אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֧י אַהֲרֹ֛ן לְקַדְּשׁ֖וֹ לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִֽי׃ (ד) וְאֵ֨לֶּה הַבְּגָדִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַעֲשׂ֗וּ חֹ֤שֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד֙ וּמְעִ֔יל וּכְתֹ֥נֶת תַּשְׁבֵּ֖ץ מִצְנֶ֣פֶת וְאַבְנֵ֑ט וְעָשׂ֨וּ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֜דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֛יךָ וּלְבָנָ֖יו לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִֽי׃

(2) Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment. (3) Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill,to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest. (4) These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me;

(טו) וְעָשִׂ֜יתָ חֹ֤שֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט֙ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה חֹשֵׁ֔ב כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֵפֹ֖ד תַּעֲשֶׂ֑נּוּ זָ֠הָ֠ב תְּכֵ֨לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֜ן וְתוֹלַ֧עַת שָׁנִ֛י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ מׇשְׁזָ֖ר תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃ (טז) רָב֥וּעַ יִֽהְיֶ֖ה כָּפ֑וּל זֶ֥רֶת אׇרְכּ֖וֹ וְזֶ֥רֶת רׇחְבּֽוֹ׃ (יז) וּמִלֵּאתָ֥ בוֹ֙ מִלֻּ֣אַת אֶ֔בֶן אַרְבָּעָ֖ה טוּרִ֣ים אָ֑בֶן ט֗וּר אֹ֤דֶם פִּטְדָה֙ וּבָרֶ֔קֶת הַטּ֖וּר הָאֶחָֽד׃ (יח) וְהַטּ֖וּר הַשֵּׁנִ֑י נֹ֥פֶךְ סַפִּ֖יר וְיָהֲלֹֽם׃ (יט) וְהַטּ֖וּר הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י לֶ֥שֶׁם שְׁב֖וֹ וְאַחְלָֽמָה׃ (כ) וְהַטּוּר֙ הָרְבִיעִ֔י תַּרְשִׁ֥ישׁ וְשֹׁ֖הַם וְיָשְׁפֵ֑ה מְשֻׁבָּצִ֥ים זָהָ֛ב יִהְי֖וּ בְּמִלּוּאֹתָֽם׃ (כא) וְ֠הָאֲבָנִ֠ים תִּֽהְיֶ֜יןָ עַל־שְׁמֹ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל שְׁתֵּ֥ים עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה עַל־שְׁמֹתָ֑ם פִּתּוּחֵ֤י חוֹתָם֙ אִ֣ישׁ עַל־שְׁמ֔וֹ תִּֽהְיֶ֕יןָ לִשְׁנֵ֥י עָשָׂ֖ר שָֽׁבֶט׃

(15) You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. (16) It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. (17) Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; (18) the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; (19) the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; (20) and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. (21) The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.

Every stone had its place. Only when every stone was in its place would the priest be able to don the breastplate and thus be fully ready to fulfill his service to the Divine. The instructions for the choshen ensured that there was a place for every tribe and that none's space dominated any other. By divine design, all of Israel was given their rightful space. As a result, this elaborate accessory was, from the outset, a lesson in the middah of anavah–humility for the tribes, lest one try either to dominate the space of the others or to wither into the background.

-Rabbi Leah Lewis

According to the nineteenth-century Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Ychudah Berlin in Haamek Davar), the choshen lay over the High Priest's heart to remind him that it was his duty to pray and offer sacrifices on behalf of the whole community. Power and prestige were given to the Kohein Gadol–High Priest with the express purpose of serving God and others—and not to bolster the self.

To act with anavah does not simply mean to refrain from standing out. Instead, to act with anavah means to limit "oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others." Identifying our "appropriate space" in different contexts is the first step of this Mussar challenge. What follows is the task of filling that space—no more and no less.

-Rabbi Leah Lewis

Elected officials campaign by bolstering themselves and cutting down their opponents. Celebrity culture enhances the image of celebrity life. We find affirmation in how many "likes" or "followers" we can attract on social media. "Selfies" ensure that we are always front and center in the world as we perceive it.

There is some truth to the adage: clothes do "make the man." But as Parashat T'tzaveh suggests and Mussar confirms, it is not the size of our closets or the labels sewn on our garments that define us. Rather, the things we wear on the outside have the potential to function as instigators of internal, spiritual exercises. Like the stones or the breastplate and its placement, each of us bears a sacred duty. We must consider where we fit into the broader world, and occupy ou rightful space—no more and no less.

-Rabbi Leah Lewis

Questions to Ask

  • Do the clothes you wear on any given day impact your behavior?

  • How is this behavior similar to or different from your behavior when you are wearing something else?