This week’s parsha begins with the commandment to Moses to command the Jewish people to bring oil to him for the kindling of the Menorah in the Temple.
After the brief reference to oil the Torah continues to discuss the priestly garments that were to be worn by the Kohanim when they serve in the Temple.
It is axiomatic in Judaism that nothing happens by chance and there are certainly no coincidences in the Torah. It behooves us to know why these two themes—oil and garments—were placed together in the Torah. What connection is there between the oil used for kindling the Menorah and the garments worn by the priests?
Commentators find these two themes highlighted by King Solomon in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): “Let your garments always be white, and your head never lack oil.” Here too a connection is made between the whiteness of the garments and the oil.
O’lelos Ephraim (a seventeenth century commentator, also the author of the famous Bible commentary Kli Yakar) explains that since stains can be easily detected on a white garment and are also hard to remove, King Solomon is, in effect, exhorting us to imagine ourselves as if we are wearing white garments while balancing a pitcher of oil on our heads. This sobering thought will make us forever mindful that one slight move in the wrong direction can cause our garments to become soiled.
Other commentators describe the purity of the garments as a reference to one’s character. One must constantly strive to refine one’s nature.
But if the whiteness of the garments are a reference to the purity of our character, what does the reference to oil suggest?
There are two ways one can have a sterling character. The first method is to be born and bred with refined traits. Whatever we may have inherited can be augmented by being raised by refined parents and by living in a good environment.
But there is another approach. It is, metaphorically speaking, by pouring an ample supply of oil over our heads inasmuch as oil is a metaphor for wisdom and knowledge.
When one studies Torah, particularly the parts of Torah that deal with character refinement, it will affect not only our behavior but also our personality. It is even more effective when we study the spiritual and mystical dimensions of Torah and apply them to ourselves. People who are prone to anger and other unbecoming dispositions have been known to change when they applied themselves to Torah; or more precisely, when they applied the Torah to themselves.
Kong Solomon therefore exhorts us to have “white (read: refined) garments” (read: characteristics). In this context he is referring to the natural tendency to refinement that comes from one’s nature and nurture.
But, that might not suffice. So King Solomon reminds us not to lack “oil on our heads.” We must use the wisdom and inspiration of Torah that is likened to oil, to cultivate an even more refined personality.
Based on this interpretation the question arises why King Solomon reversed the order of these two themes and ideals as they are alluded to in this week’s parsha, where oil is mentioned before the theme of garments?
One answer to this question is to better contrast and analyze the two approaches to character refinement. Which of the two is superior? Is the person who is born and raised with a pure heart and refined disposition superior to the one who acquires refinement through Torah therapy? Or, perhaps, it is the other way around?
The answer is both!
The advantage of possessing a naturally refined soul is that it is not extrinsic to or superimposed on the person. It is who they really are. On the other hand, the one who utilizes their intellectual powers to change their character have risen above their own nature. Our purpose on this earth is not simply to be naturally good, but to raise what already exists and is naturally pure and good, to a higher G‑dly level.
Thus, when King Solomon prefaces the theme of white garments it is because King Solomon, who deals with the natural virtues—in the words of Kohelet “everything that happens under the sun”—gives precedence to the process of natural refinement because it is so pure and natural; it is a part of nature, “under the sun.”
When the Torah discusses the themes of “oil” and “garments” it reverses the order. This is because Torah preceded the creation of the world and therefore transcends the parameters of the world of nature. The first thing it therefore emphasizes is the importance of the oil that elevates one’s nature to a higher level.
These two dimensions of refinement reflect the difference between the way the world was in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and the way it will be in the future Messianic Age. Both represent the ideal sstate of purity and refinement. Indeed, the Garden of Eden—before Adam sinned—was the most naturally pure and pristine place. It required no effort to be pure and holy. However, in the Messianic Age we will reach the same and even higher levels of purity; that which transcends nature.
The Messianic Age will be ushered in by a great Jewish leader who is referred to as Moshiach, the meaning of which is “the anointed one”; the one who is anointed with oil. This signifies that he is a person who lacks no oil on his head. And because of his “oil” his garments are pure. To be sure, Moshiach possesses natural refinement but he also is able to elevate his natural purity to a much higher level and thereby render his garments not only white and pure, but also glorious and beautiful.
We read Parshat Tetzaveh on the Shabbat that precedes the Holiday of Purim. In the Book of Esther it describes Mordechai—one of the heroes of Purim after Haman was plot was thwarted—thus: “And Mordechai left the King wearing blue and white royal clothes with a big gold crown and robes of fine linen and of purple wool; then the city of Shushan was cheerful and glad.”
While Adam was dressed by G‑d to cover his nakedness when he lost his innocence and was driven out of the Garden of Eden, Mordechai’s royal robes were not intended just for covering himself. They were royal robes that expressed his miraculous triumph over all his adversaries.
Moreover, according to some interpretations, the reference to his crown is an allusion to the Tefillin that he wore that are likened to a crown of glory. And Tefillin, which are placed on the head, are analogous to the oil that King Solomon refers to as being on the head.
Tefillin symbolizes the mastery of the mind over the heart; man’s ability to elevate his natural feelings and character by the use of his mind to a level that transcends logic and reason.
Mordechai’s triumph is a portent of the future when our minds will help us refine our nature and enable us to transcend nature.