What stands out in the Sedra this week is the concentration on the descriptions of the priests, especially the “Cohen Gadol”, and the total absence of the name of Moses in the narrative. It will be the family of Aaron that will form the priesthood, not the family of Moses the prophet and our leader out of exile.
Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer have priests. Our “meeting place”, our Bet HaKnesset” is in our synagogues. Dressing up to attend is still part of our behaviour but even that is changing. Some of us will have memories of wardens wearing Top Hats and the Rabbi wearing full canonical clothes. “Canonicals” (ministerial vestments) are – or were – a part of Minhag Anglia, the “Anglo-Jewish usage”.
Ashkenazi ministers wore a (sometimes hexagonal) black cap akin to a biretta or Continental doctoral hat, a black gown like a Geneva preaching robe, and neck bands (which sometimes went with a clerical collar). There was a High Holyday version in white. United Synagogue byelaws once required officiants to wear robes at all services, even on weekdays.
British Sephardi clergy wore canonicals with top hats instead of birettas. Previously, Tricorn hats were worn over a hairpiece. (It is said that one summer in the 19th century a chazan at Bevis Marks felt hot, removed his wig, found his Tricorn no longer fitted, and officiated in the top hat he wore in the street, thus creating a new custom.)
However striking the appearance of the Cohen Gadol, with his tunic, turban, sash, Choshen (breastplate) and the Urim and Thummin(those mystical objects for divination), it was still someone who accepted the “kehunah”, the service of God. The phrase to “be priests for Me” appears four times in the Sedra. Clothes did not make the office; it would always be the person within.
At the beginning of the Sedra we are told to provide oil for a continual light. It was for all the people, and we still describe ourselves as a “light unto the nations”. Earlier in Exodus, God proclaimed
And you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation
That role, of servant of God, was not limited to Aaron’s descendants; it was and remains a message for us all.