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Parsha Tetzaveh: “Striving for Human Excellence”

RABBI DONIEL FRANK | Director, M.A.P. Seminars, Inc., Marriage and Family Therapist

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A non-Jew was once walking past the back of a bais midrash, and when he overheard the voice of the rebbe teaching the posuk, “and these are the clothes that they should make for the kohain: a breastplate, an ephod, etc.” he interrupted the class and asked them. “Who wears these clothes?” And when they answered, “the kohain gadol,” he said to himself, “I will go and convert to Judaism so that they can make me the kohain gadol.”

So he went to get converted. The story is well known – that Shamai pushed him away, and that Hillel embraced him. But before the conversion, Hillel asked the man to study the laws of kehunah, and when he came to realize that a kohain must come from the family of Levi, and that even Dovid HaMelech would have received the death penalty had he worn the kohain’s clothes, he realized that he could never be a kohain gadol.

podcast3That’s the story told in Gemara in Shabbos 31a. And here are a few questions.

First, what was so attractive about the clothes that then non-Jew would have changed his whole lifestyle in order to wear them?

Second, although the gemara emphasizes Hillel’s tolerance, he must have seen something in the non-Jew’s request that was reason to convert him. What was that?

And finally, why did the non-Jew go through with the conversion if he wasn’t going to be able to wear the clothes that attracted him to Judaism in the first place?

Here’s one possibility.

The Midrash Tanchuma says that the Mishkan was a replica of the world. And it goes on to list the parallels to each act of creation. For example, “let there be light” was the ner tamid. “Let there be oceans,” was the washbasin… all the way until the last commandment, “Let there be man,” and that was the kohain gadol.

Now this kohain gadol was supposed to represent man at his best. Each detail of each article of his wardrobe represents the ultimate expression of that part of the body, whether the hat on his head, the tzitz on his forehead, the breastplate on his chest, so that when he wore all of those clothes, he personified the fully expressed person.

That’s what attracted the non-Jew. He got excited about the possibilities of human potential. He needed to know who could be worthy to wear those clothes, the ones that personify man at his best, and he wanted to be that person. Of course, he could never play the role of kohain gadol. He found that out pretty quickly. But he came to know that Judaism’s agenda was to give everyone the chance to live like that person. And he knew that firsthand, from his experiences with Hillel. Because the Gemara describes how impressed the non-Jew was with Hillel’s humility, which was a proof to him that Judaism produces great people, which could very well have convinced him he didn’t need to be a kohain gadol to achieve his goal – to achieve his potential – which is why he converted anyway. At the same time, Hillel saw these aspirations for greatness, and that was enough for him to actually help him convert.

A wise man once said that “more tragic than the waste of natural resources is the waste of human resources.” Great people are never complacent with mediocrity. They can’t enjoy an unfulfilled life. They are always on the lookout to see how they can become better. And when they see human excellence, or the opportunities for it, they get excited and look for ways to achieve it themselves. That was the drive of the non-Jew, that’s what Hillel saw, and that is the universal message of the kohain’s clothes.


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