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The Enterprise of Walking Naked

What are we to make of the long descriptions of the High Priest’s ceremonial garments in this week’s portion? The garments include a breastplate, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash and an ephod, or long tunic, and each is described in detail. The robe, for example, is to have embroidered pomegranates “of blue, purple and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around” (Exodus 28:33). These “holy garments” are to be worn “for dignity and adornment.”

George Herbert (1593-1633) has written a poem, “Aaron,” which is based on the High Priest’s headdress, breastplate and robe:

Holinesse on the head,Light and perfections on the breast,Harmonious bells below, raising the deadTo lead them unto life and rest:Thus are true Aarons drest.

Herbert immediately applies all this to himself in an anguish of introspective comparison:

Profanenesse in my head,Defects and darknesse in my breast,A noise of passions ringing me for deadUnto a place where is no rest:Poore priest thus am I drest.

And this, to come back to my opening question, is one way of making use of the descriptions in Exodus 28. But it’s a bit of a stretch, and probably was a stretch even for an Anglican priest of the early 17th century like George Herbert. The descriptions of the High Priest’s garments prompted quite different thoughts in myself.

One of the central impulses of the last century or two has been to strip away human pretensions. Our entire planet is an almost infinitely small part of the known universe; we not only evolved from the primordial slime but our DNA turns out to be not very different to that of an earthworm and virtually identical to that of a chimpanzee; our leaders are not all-knowing and wise and the few kings and queens and princes and princesses left for our contemplation now rarely bother to dress up in royal costumes. The intellectual and social developments that led to this state of affairs make it difficult for us to be in awe of, or even attribute a special dignity to, a person in office, let alone in robes of office.

The felt necessity of these developments, and the concomitant loss, was one of the problems that preoccupied William Butler Yeats. In an early collection of his poetry, published in 1893, Yeats, talking of the old Irish heroes and heroines and fairies and other ancient folk, says,

I cast my heart into my rhymes,That you, in the dim coming times,May know how my heart went with themAfter the red-rose-bordered hem.

But not too long into the dim coming times of the new century, even before the First World War, Yeats was informing his readers that although he had previously “made my song a coat/ Covered with old embroideries” he was now casting it off,

For there’s more enterpriseIn walking naked.

In spite of this resolve, however, Yeats tells us in his last collection of poems that

Players and the painted stage took all my loveAnd not those things that they were emblems of.

Why couldn’t he shake this absorption with artifact and show? He gives the best answer in an early poem, “The Mask.” When the subsidiary speaker in the poem asks the protagonist to take off his mask, this is the response:

It was the mask engaged your mind,And after set your heart to beat,Not what’s behind.

And the subsequent request to see what is behind the mask for the sake of the truth, gets this response:

O no, my dear, let all that be;What matter, so there is but fireIn you, in me?

The robes of the High Priest engaged the minds of those who watched him perform his functions, and helped keep the fire of their awe and belief burning in them. Ancient Israel was not dedicated to the proposition that there’s more enterprise in walking naked, and its beliefs had hems embroidered with blue, purple and crimson pomegranates and hung with golden bells. But we, who live in the dim times that have come, have to believe whatever we believe without the support of embroidery.

David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward.

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