The Talmud points out, however, that the garments were for more than splendour and dignity. Each one had a role to play in achieving atonement for the people.
Rabbi Anani bar Sason said, “Why is the portion about the priestly garments placed next to the portion about sacrifices? To tell you that just as sacrifices procure atonement, so do the priestly garments” (Arachin 16a).
Thus, say the rabbis, the tunic atones for bloodshed, the trousers for immorality, the mitre for arrogance of mind, the girdle for sinful thoughts, the breast-plate for error in legal decisions, the ephod for idolatry, the robe for slander and the golden plate for impudence.
Now surely the mere donning of a particular garment does not magically erase a whole category of sins. But the Talmud may be saying that if any or all of these sins occur somewhere amongst the people the spiritual leader bears a share of the guilt.
Perhaps he did not teach the people properly, or give them a good enough example; perhaps he was weak and did not protest enough.
In ancient days people probably said what they often do today when clergy protest against the evils they see around them, “Get back to your altar (or pulpit or bimah) and don’t mix into matters that are not your business!”
The fact is that everything is the business of religion and its spokesmen, and the religious leader who keeps quiet bears some of the guilt.