The Torah’s description of the Bigdei Kehunah is one of the focal points of Parashat Tetzaveh. The description is bookended by the Torah’s dual statement of purpose that the Bigdei Kehunah are to be fashioned “LeChavod ULeTif’aret,” “for splendor and for beauty” (Shemot 28:2, 28:40). The first of these statements of purpose refers to Aharon HaKohein’s full complement of Bigdei Kehunah Gedolah, while the second statement characterizes the more basic set of Bigdei Kehunah supplied to his children. Although the two sets of clothing differ in their respective quantity of articles, they both serve the similarly stated function of supplying splendor and beauty.
A similar description will be read publically in a few weeks during Keri’at HaMegillah, the reading of Megillat Esther, on Purim. Megillat Esther begins with a description of Achashveirosh’s 180-day party for his ministers and servants. The stated purpose of the party was to display “Osher Kevod Malchuto VeEt Yekar Tif’eret Gedulato,” “The riches of his glorious kingdom and the honor of his excellent majesty” (Esther 1:4). The same dual description of ‘Kavod’ and ‘Tif’eret’ which characterizes the Bigdei Kehunah in Parashat Tetzaveh, also captures the object of Achashveirosh’s demonstrative display to his ministers and servants.
Chazal were attuned to the parallel usage of Kavod and Tif’eret in the two contexts when commenting on the Pasuk in Megillat Esther – Rabi Yosi Ben Chanina states that this verse teaches that Achashveirosh wore the Bigdei Kehunah (Megillah 12a). Rav Yonatan Grossman claims that this literary connection highlights a broader, hidden theme in Megillat Esther; namely, the underlying tension between the Jewish community that had returned to Yehudah and the Jewish community that remained in Shushan. The parallel usage of Kavod and Tif’eret and Achashveirosh’s sporting of the Bigdei Kehunah highlight the Bigdei Kehunah’s alternative usage as part of the feasting in Achashveirosh’s palace rather than in their former role as part of the sacrificial feasting in God’s palace. This allusion is meant to serve as a hidden rebuke to the Jews of Shushan for failing to participate in the struggle to resettle Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Beit HaMikdash.
This point of connection notwithstanding, the parallel language serves to highlight the contrasting goals of the Kohanim’s donning of the Bigdei Kehunah, on the one hand, as opposed to Achashveirosh’s display at his party, on the other. The words ‘Kavod’ and ‘Tif’eret’ used in Megillat Esther are introduced with the word “BeHar’oto,” “When he showed,” and are followed by Achashveirosh’s instructions to Vashti to attend the party, which were intended “to show the princes and people her beauty” (Esther 1:4, 1:11). In Achashveirosh’s case, the emphasis on beauty and splendor was meant to showcase and demonstrate to others. It was therefore a hollow splendor, and a beauty that ran only skin deep.
The beauty and splendor of the Bigdei Kehunah, however, stemmed from a different motive and need. It reflected a deep recognition of the significance and loftiness of the location of the Mishkan and the divine service that was performed there. Ramban explains that the dual function of splendor and beauty can be interpreted as serving the needs of the Kohanim, the faithful servants who wear the Bigdei Kehunah during their service in the Mishkan, or, alternatively, serving to reflect and amplify the splendor and beauty of God’s presence which resides in the Mishkan. In either event, the splendor and beauty of the Bigdei Kehunah was not intended as an ostentatious display meant to be demonstrative, showy, or impressionistic, but rather was meant to reflect the loftiness and significance of the location, God’s presence which resided there, and the importance of the individuals who coordinated the divine service therein. Their impressive quality and appearance was an only fitting and deserving recognition of the importance inherent to the place, individuals, and activities that they helped uplift.