Sacerdotal Sartorialism, or What Watching “Project Runway” taught me about Parashat Tetsaveh

Through a series of events that defy explanation, I recently found myself watching several episodes of the reality tv show “Project Runway.” Project Runway follows a group of contestants while they perform increasingly difficult challenges requiring feats of fashion creativity. At the end of each challenge a winner and a loser is declared, with the loser sent home, no longer to participate in the contest or the show, and the winner granted immunity in the next challenge. All the while, the challenges give the contestants practical experience with what it means to design and tailor clothing.

The practical experience is most often manifest in practical problems. The time the contestants get to sketch and plan out their designs is a flurry of excitement, but as soon they have to start purchasing textile materials and tailoring clothing things quickly become more complicated. More often than not a designer realizes that the material they purchased doesn’t move the way they need it to for their design, or that they underestimated the amount of a material they would need and now they have to substitute with something else. Perhaps even more important than the ability to imagine a new design is the ability to turn that design into a concrete reality, and to deal with all the obstacles that may arise in that process.

The clothing of the Kohanim, and the building of the mishkan more generally, is assigned to craftsmen whose wisdom is expounded at length (Shemot 28:3, 31:1-6). The project leader, Betsalel, is said to have been filled with “the spirit of God in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship” (31:3). While the many voices of the Jewish tradition have suggested all manner of Divine knowledge that Betsalel possessed, it might be more simple to say that he possessed the Divine knowledge and ability to take the images and designs that God relayed to him via Moshe and turn them into concrete objects. Bnei Yisrael donated a finite amount of material for what was ultimately rather large project, and it is all but Divine that Betsalel was able to successfully turn God’s designs into a realized Mishkan, with all its accompanying items.

If Betsalel plays the role of the Tailor, then God is the Fashion Designer (the third such role God plays in as many parshiyot, with the first two being Lawgiver and Architect). In Project Runway, each design is created in response to the specific prompt of each challenge; different prompts can require vastly different designs. There are totally different sets of fabrics, colors, and styles that are required to meet the needs of different life-situations. Clothing meant for the business world is not the same as clothing meant for a social event, neither of which is the same as clothing that is meant for both. Each designer thus starts with a specific purpose in mind when they begin designing their clothing, and that purpose guides the process of determining the look and nature of the finished product.

Conveniently, the Torah tells us exactly what the “prompt” for the garments of the kohanim was. It says both of those for the Kohen Gadol and for the normal kohanim that their garments were to be made “לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת,” for dignity and for beauty (Shemot 28:2, 40). In a word, the purpose of the garments is one of Aesthetics. When examining the various aspects of the garments with all of their details, one of the things we should be looking for is the way these details add to the aesthetic effect of the clothing.

This introduces a subtle aspect into the service of the Mishkan that we don’t often think about. The service in the Mishkan is generally thought about in terms of animal sacrifice, clouds of incense, and worship of God. While all of that is still true, there is also a significant aesthetic component to the service. The garments of the kohanim, and the Kohen HaGadol in particular, are supposed to be striking in their beauty. Observers and supplicants are filled with a sense of grandeur and dignity by the kohanim and the rituals of the sacrifice. The smells and sounds of the sacrifices stimulate and overwhelm the sense. Beyond its other purposes, Rambam says that the incense served to create an aroma that would cover the smell of the slaughtered animals and would create a sense of reverence for the Mikdash (and the Mishkan before it). The purpose of the priestly garments to create a sense of dignity and beauty is thus part of a larger aesthetic sense that pervades the service of the Mishkan. With this in mind we should turn anew to the service of God in our own day, with a new appreciation for the ability of our places and objects of worship to be aesthetically powerful and inspiring.