The Torah in Parashat Tetzaveh discusses the tzitz – the golden headplate worn by the kohen gadol – stating that by wearing the tzitz, the kohen gadol brought atonement for “the iniquity of the sacred offerings which the Israelites offer” (28:38). The Gemara (Yoma 7a) explains that the tzitz provided atonement for situations where sacrifices became tamei (ritually impure) and were thus disqualified. The Torah forbids offering upon the altar sacrifices that had become tamei, and the tzitz served to bring atonement for violations of this nature.
Elsewhere (Zevachim 88a, Arakhin 16a), however, the Gemara points to a different function of the tzitz – to atone for azut panim, or brazen behavior, a lack of a sense of shame. Brazenness is often referred to as “azut meitzach” – a characteristic that expresses itself on one’s forehead – and thus the tzitz, which was worn on the forehead, atoned for the transgression.
The question naturally arises as to the connection between azut panim and violations of tum’at kodashim (the defilement of sacrifices through impurity). The Torah states explicitly that the tzitz serves to atone for the mishandling of sacrifices. How, then, can the Gemara comment that it atones for brazenness?
Rav Baruch Yitzchak Yissakhar Leventhal, in his Birkat Yitzchak, suggests that Chazal perhaps refer here to a particular kind of azut panim, which indeed resembles, on some level, violations of tum’at kodashim. Namely, they speak of the misuse of religious matters for sinful goals. Few things are as “brazen” as defiling kodashim – our sacred values, principles, objects and institutions – by using them for forbidden purposes, such as for unlawful financial gain, to create conflict, or to assert control. Misappropriating Torah and sanctity for sinful defiles them, and is thus symbolically comparable to the defilement of sacrifices through contact with tum’a.
We might add that the atonement comes specifically through the tzitz, the kohen gadol’s headplate, which bears the inscription “kodesh le-Hashem” – “sacred to God” – and thus represents his status of exclusive designation for sanctity. We must recognize that when we work in the “Mikdash,” when we involve ourselves in “sacred” affairs, we act as the kohen gadol in the Temple, exclusively designated for the lofty purpose of avodat Hashem. We cannot perform sacred work with our personal interests in mind, with the objective of fulfilling our own selfish ambitions. When we enter the “Mikdash,” whenever we undertake any sacred endeavor, we must remember that we are “kodesh le-Hashem,” just a servant of our Creator, faithfully devoted to His will, rather than utilize His sacred mitzvot to fulfill our own personal wishes.