Justice, Mercy and a Great Suit of Clothes

This week's Torah portion describes the garments of the High Priest. By studying this description, we can learn a great deal about the nature of God and how He deals with us.

"And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty." (Ex 28:2) Why does the Torah use two words - 'glory' (kevod) and 'beauty' (teferet) - rather than just one? Since each word means something different, what does each tell us about God?

The word 'glory' connotes power1 and is represented by those items of the High Priest's clothing that are worked with gold. The word 'beauty' denotes a quality of being or character that is attractive in and of itself. Beauty is represented by the Priest's white linen garments. Naturally (and Biblically) the white linen is worn next to the skin and the gold-worked items are to the outside where they readily may be seen.

When we think of glory, we think of power, size, awesome deeds. Hence, a general may gain glory for his exploits on the battlefield. A king may have glory in the size of his nation, the wealth of his treasury, the size of his armies, etc. While people who have glory may also be beautiful or surround themselves with beautiful things, that need not be so. History is full of people and nations who covered themselves in glory only to conceal a rotten core.

Beauty on the other hand, is a quality that we want either to possess or to draw near. Not because of what it can do to or for us, but simply because it is.

So what does all this have to do with the High Priest and his clothes? Consider that the High Priest is the visible intermediary between the people and God. In performing his office, he represents the nation before God and conversely represents God to the people. When we come to realize that God is, we first encounter His power. We learn that there is much about His creation that we cannot control and that He is not bound to consider what we want in running that creation. In other words, it is the glory that first catches our attention just as the gold work in the High Priest's garments is the first thing we notice about him. It is only as we get closer and come to know the High Priest that we realize that under the glory he is clothed in beauty.

In the beginning of Genesis, we encounter Elohim who created the universe and keeps it running. Elohim represents power, precision, justice. There can be no variation or mercy in Him otherwise the universe ceases to exist. He sets the natural laws that we depend upon for our very existence. Suppose we have a car and it quits running. We do not say, "Well, I guess the laws of thermodynamics and mechanics just aren't working today. Perhaps they'll start working tomorrow and the car will be fine." No, we know that God's laws are not the problem. The car is broken or out of gas and we need to get it fixed. It's just a law; impersonal, dependable, constant.

Similarly, if I step in front of a bus, God's law of inertia may kill me. If I ignore His commandment to wash my hands before eating, it is very likely I'll get sick. He's not angry or wrathful, it's just a law. His moral and relational laws as given in the Torah are no different than His physical laws. They are stated in black and white terms and there is no slack given. This is what leads many Christians to regard the Torah as harsh and archaic. They are looking at the power and glory and they recoil from its exacting requirements.

As I get closer to God, I get past the glory and discover that this all powerful being is also beautiful. I discover His personal and relational side. I come to know Him as YHVH. Just as the High Priest's beautiful garments are hidden by the glorious ones and are closer to his heart, YHVH is hidden by Elohim. It is YHVH who wants me to succeed, who tells me in His Torah the rules that Elohim has established and who, in response to prayer, may sometimes bend those rules and deflect the consequences of my sins. He is kind, gentle and forgiving - altogether lovely.

To complete our metaphor with the High Priest, we see that the layers of garments cover a single man. It is not the case that one priest wears the glorious garments and another the beautiful ones. So with God. One being is both glorious and beautiful. We may choose to stay at a distance and deal with the glorious Elohim, or we may come close and discover the beauty of YHVH. It is our choice.

1Several of the ideas in this piece are from Splendor in the Quest on Aish.com. Any errors or misunderstandings are my own.