The Lowly High Priest

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I’ve always been amazed at the complexity of the Hebrew language. One of the most profound examples is the word ga’avah, which can be translated as pride — something we all wish to possess, something we’re taught is an important sought-after trait; but ga’avah can just as easily be translated as arrogance, a repugnant trait, one from which we’re all taught to steer clear.

What’s the message of a word so easily confused? Why not have two completely distinctive words for contrary concepts?


The message is profound in its simplicity: They really are the same trait, just exercised differently. And in the blink of an eye, an admirable pride can easily become an off-putting arrogance. People are naturally attracted to self-pride. We love knowing someone cares about himself and recognizes his talent and ability. We love when someone projects a powerful confidence, an awareness that they have something special to contribute to the world. And just like that, with a few simple words or the slight change in a smile, that pride converts into an arrogance we can’t help but loathe.

These two concepts — pride and arrogance — are forever intertwined, and we must struggle daily to have tremendous amounts of pride in ourselves and our accomplishments without inadvertently veering across the line into the distasteful realm of arrogance.


I think this message finds itself hidden within the many details of Parshat Tetzaveh. In this parshah we learn all about the clothing worn by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest of the Jewish people, one of the most important leadership roles and arguably the most central religious figure of his generation. The Kohein Gadol, fitting so auspicious a position, wears an elaborate outfit, distinct from the one worn by the many other individuals who work alongside him in the Temple.

We might expect that such an admired role would be filled with even more pomp and circumstance on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But that day yields no special outfit. In fact, quite the opposite. Not only does he spend large portions of the day wearing the clothing normally worn by the other priests, he has to be inconvenienced by switching back and forth between the two outfits several times throughout the day.

Furthermore, despite that he holds so lofty a position and fasts alongside the rest of the Jewish people, his day is inundated with labor from start to finish, while the rest of us look on as mere inactive spectators. I can’t help but be reminded of one my most inspiring and incredible neighbors, who despite being a generous and influential doctor in the community (and not a young man at all), spends Tzom Gedalya, a minor fast day shortly after Rosh Hashanah, driving all over town helping community members build their sukkot. What a message to the young and healthy among us who would prefer to sleep a fast away! We are left with no excuse to be lazy, whether fasting or otherwise.

I’m also reminded of every quality employer I’ve ever had. The best among them universally shared a trait: They were always willing to get their hands dirty. How different this is than our typical mental picture of the CEO of the corporation who sits with his feet on his desk in an air-conditioned office, hands behind his head, contemplating his next vacation, sponsored by the rigorous and lengthy labor of the little guy.

The great people of this world work hard, and consistently, even when it would least be expected of them.

Perhaps it’s all inherent in the system: The Kohein Gadol is assisted in resisting the temptation to cross the line from pride to arrogance. You have a man of incredible worth, having risen to the top through a coveted blend of inheritance and worthiness, on a day like no other, with all eyes upon him. How easy it would be to feel on top of the world and better than those not receiving such tremendous honors. But the day is Yom Kippur. To be certain, it is a day replete with splendor, but also a day in which we cannot risk the possibility of the Kohein Gadol not being his ideal self. The entire nation is dependent upon him, and we cannot risk one of the basest of personality flaws tainting him at such a critical moment.

Yitzchak Jaffe is a former resident of Baltimore and teacher at Beth Tfiloh. He lives in Kansas City, Kan., works as a quality assurance analyst and is the father of four children.

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