In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, we get quite a dramatic scene : Moses is commanded to ordain his brother Aaron as High Priest, and his 4 nephews as the other Priests of the community. Like some Biblical Project Runway, the text goes into astonishing detail about the clothes Aaron and his sons are wearing. There are linen breeches, cut to a particular length. There are turbans and an ephod, (sort of a sleeveless garment) a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They get two braided chains of pure gold. And then, the piece de resistance – the Urim v’Tumim.
It was a breastpiece, framed in braided gold cords, in a frame with 12 mounted stones: “carnelian, chrysolite, emerald…turquoise, sapphire, amethyst,…jacinth, agate, crystal…beryl, lapis lazuli and jasper.” (Ex:28:17-19) The stones were to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel.
What follows is an elaborate ritual involving offerings and blood-spattering and laying of hands.
Presto: a new Priestly class, in all their dignity and adornment.
So why didn’t Moses get the fancy clothes? After all, Moses was the one who talked to God, brought the people out of Egypt, delivered the Ten Commandments at Sinai (after Aaron messed up with the Golden Calf, even), and Talked. To. God. It wasn’t a matter of public vs private, since Sinai was as public as possible. So, why such a difference between Moses and Aaron?
Aaron was embarking on a path as the principal figure for all the ritual symbols and of what would become Jewish practice. He became one kind of leader. Moses remained a different kind, the prophetic leader. At this point in the text, we see a division of labor – prophet and priest. One speaks the words of God, one performs the rituals of God. Do the public performances of the rituals require the pomp, but the private words from God don’t?
The Israelites were in the earliest stages of developing their identity as a people. In the middle of the wilderness, perhaps the people were going to be needing a more obvious symbol of God’s commandments, a more ornately determined keeper of God’s rituals. The role of the prophet was, for the time, going to be more personal, private, and although Moses retained leadership of the entire community, perhaps he knew that eventually, prophets and priests would occupy different places in the society.
We need both priests and prophets, the ones who lead the communities and the ones whose moral compass keeps us focused on God’s path.