Some of you know that one of my outlets during the pandemic has been online thrift shopping, and this week, I had a particularly good find: a bright yellow wool peacoat. This isn’t something I would have bought a year ago, or even six weeks ago. But it reminded me of the beautiful yellow coat worn by youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris.
Gorman’s entire outfit was layered with meaning. The yellow coat was a nod to Dr. Jill Biden, who had chosen her to speak at the occasion after seeing a video of Gorman reciting a poem while wearing the same color.
But perhaps the weightiest part of Gorman’s outfit was a ring sent to her by none other than Oprah Winfrey, who also sent gifts to Maya Angelou to wear when she recited a poem at the 1993 inauguration. The ring was shaped like a caged bird, a reference to one of Angelou’s most famous poems. What must it have felt like to be 22 years old, speaking at the inauguration of the first black woman vice president, wearing jewelry from one of the most influential black women of our time, honoring one of the best known black writers of the 20th century?
Perhaps it reminded Gorman of the mantra she recites before every performance: ‘I am the daughter of Black writers. We are descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call.’”
It doesn’t take an inauguration outfit for us to know that clothing is more than what covers our bodies. It is part of what defines us as human beings. Scholar Nechama Leibowitz points out: “Humans are the only creatures in the universe who do not rest content with their natural skin.” Clothing sends a message both to the wearer and to the outside world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, where we learn the design of the clothing of the priesthood, particularly the elaborate garments of the high priest.
In a society where most clothing would have been overwhelmingly beige, the colorful design of the high priest’s outfit indicates his elevated status. The embroidery alone requires the work of many dedicated Israelites. Gold, blue, purple, and red dyes—all expensive to produce—figure prominently in the high priests’ outfit. Precious stones and metals decorate his forehead, shoulders, chest, and ankles.
These fancy pieces did not just serve to show the Israelites who was the boss. In fact, it is likely that they did exactly the opposite.
The centerpiece of this outfit was the choshen mishpat, the “breastpiece of decision,” which was embellished with 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, on each of his shoulders, the high priest wears one of two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 tribes. “Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Ex. 28: 30).
Why would God insist that the high priest be so…bedazzled? Wouldn’t all that bling be heavy to carry around?
The engraving on the stones serves a dual purpose. The first is so that, when the high priest appeared before God, God would remember the covenant God had made with all the Israelites. The second is so that neither the high priest nor the Israelites would ever forget that the high priest was their representative. Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers writes that the breastplate, “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478).
Rabbi Leah Lewis adds that, “the High priest could easily develop an inflated sense of self. Yet the mere structure of the choshen made it impossible for his hubris to take over. After all, only when he was wearing the jewel-studded piece representing the entire people—its weight literally and figuratively pressing on his shoulders—was he able to fulfill his sacred duty. By placing the breastplate over his chest, he was reminded of his proper role—a role of service and responsibility to others…. The finest fabrics, metals, and gems were reserved for the High Priest, yet they were used to remind him that there was a place and need for every tribe and every person. To adorn him with this accessory meant to burden him with the responsibility for others. Four rows of three stones leave no single center point, just as there is no single individual at the center of Am Yisrael” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 126).
As I was reading this Torah portion, I couldn’t help but imagine what a choshen mishpat might look like for our leaders today. Would the president wear a stone for each of the 50 states (as well as the territories)? Would a senator’s breastpiece feature the names of all of their districts? Would a representative engrave their constituents’ zip codes on their shoulder stones? What would it feel like if a local, state, or national leader had to carry the weight of their constituents with them wherever they went?
I like to believe it would mean that the COVID relief bill would have passed through the House and Senate months ago. Federal, state, and local leaders could not have allowed the vaccine rollout to be so dangerously slow and disorganized, nor offered so little support to essential workers, struggling families, schools, and businesses trying to survive this difficult time.
I don’t think a senator could have left his state during a deadly winter storm, or, for that matter, that leaders in Texas could have knowingly left their energy and water sources so vulnerable to bad weather and costly surge pricing.
I don’t think a governor could have undercounted nursing home deaths in order to avoid public ridicule. Nor would our politicians be so quick to compromise on the demand for a $15 federal minimum wage.
We don’t have bejeweled ephods or breastpieces today. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to remind our leaders whom they serve. We do this through advocacy and through protest, by voting and by holding our elected officials accountable to the communities they serve. Like the stones on the choshen mishpat, we are called to be the weight on their shoulders, and the precious stones that they display proudly to the world.
Do I think wearing a bright yellow wool peacoat will turn me into a world-renowned poet and activist? Probably not. But I do hope that, on the days I wear it, I will feel its weight on my shoulders and be reminded of the beauty of her words, the fierceness of her presence, the hope and optimism of that moment, and her fervent call to action. I hope it will remind me of my own sacred responsibilities, and help me to remind our leaders of theirs.