Place these [vestments] on Aaron and his sons. Then anoint them, and install them, sanctifying them to be priests to Me. Also make linen pants to cover their nakedness, reaching from their waists to their thighs.” (28:41-42)
The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) noted that the pants of the priest were the lowest level garment. Unlike every other vestment which was actually placed on each Kohen by Moshe, each Kohen put his own pants on privately. For obvious reasons.
Owing to the information we have from Shmot 20:23, one can ask a simple question. There the Torah tells us that a mizbeach (altar) may not have steps leading up to it, lest the Kohen’s nakedness be revealed when ascending. The Pesikta and Mechilta there both ask the question, in light of the depiction of the pants here, as to the necessity of the ramp (over steps) when clearly the Kohen’s pants were meant to cover for any concerns.
The Pesikta offers a unique interpretation, suggesting that the word for steps (ma’alot) can be reread to mean temple misuse/transgression (m’ilot). Of course, in this light the Midrash mentions Yoav and Uziahu, two individuals who misused the mizbeach, trying to make it align for their benefit in a context that was inappropriate. In other words, the “steps” that are not permitted in Shmot 20 really refer to misuse of the mizbeach, and the nakedness that is not to be revealed is the guilt of sin that comes from trying to cover things up that ought not to be covered.
Any student of Rashi will say, “thank you. We know this already! Rashi says that the reference to steps indicates a form of walking that is a little more brazen than necessary.” No one is really concerned that the actual nakedness of these Kohanim will be seen — they will be wearing pants! — but there is a public perception built into the minds of those who see the Kohanim walk in a manner that seems less than calculated, less than modest, that their nakedness is somehow being revealed.
Rabbi Yosef B’khor Shor takes the instruction not to walk up to the mizbeach with steps to be a very simple reminder to the Kohanim: Be modest with your G-d, do not be brazen or have hubris, and avoid violating rules of revealing nakedness.
The pants certainly count as one of the garments of being a Kohen, but we also must understand their particular purpose and function, and not jump to conclusions as to what their role is.
I think it is safe to say that the precaution of the pants covers for any concerns we may have of Temple visitors seeing underneath any of the priestly vestments.
So if it is not a big deal, why make it a big deal with reference to the steps leading up to the mizbeach?
Sometimes the Torah uses a method of dropping subtle hints, hoping that the greater message will supersede the need to spell things out specifically.
There may be other reasons why a mizbeach needs a ramp (it’s much easier to pull a heavy animal up a ramp than up steps, for example), but there are also deeper messages that apply to those who study these texts, even in a time when the mizbeach is absent from our day-to-day practice.
In our case, it’s a lesson of modesty in walk, modesty in behavior, and perhaps most importantly, modesty in not pinning bad behavior on religion.
Those who would excuse their bad behavior in society on their need to get closer to G-d do not understand why doing that just makes the beauty of religion tainted for others — for those who are part of said religion, and even more so for those out of the religion.
We carry a banner with pride. We dare not stain it with brazenness.