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Parshas Tetzaveh (5771)

Clothes Encounters of the Torah Kind

I think it is fair to say that most people in the world today are “clothes-minded”, i.e. they walk around wearing clothes (some wearing more than others), they spend a lot of time and money on clothes, they talk a lot about clothes (their own as well as what others are wearing), etc.

But has anyone stopped to think about why we wear clothes and from where this idea of wearing clothes originated? After all, our pet poodles don’t wear clothes! And there are even some humans who believe that it is more natural to walk around “au naturel” without any clothes on.

We also know that before they sinned by partaking from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve walked around in the Garden of Eden completely naked. So if the first couple in history wasn’t into clothes, why are we?

Of course, there are obvious reasons why humans wear clothes. Clothes can serve as protection from the elements. Clothes can keep us safe when doing hazardous activities such as cooking and hiking, by providing a barrier between the skin and the environment.

Clothes also serve to identify us with a particular group, and can reflect gender, religion and social status. As well, clothes may function as an expression of personal taste or style.

As with everything else, however, the Torah goes beyond the physical dimension to reveal the essence of clothes and their spiritual purpose. So get ready for a “clothes encounter” of the Torah kind …

In this week’s Torah portion, G-d commands Moses to make Bigdei Kehunah, Priestly Vestments, for his brother Aaron “for glory and splendor” (see Exodus 28:2).

The Ksav Sofer (1815-1871) gives us a fantastic insight into the nature and purpose of clothing, based on his original interpretation of this verse. He explains that, in reality, the Priestly Vestments that Aaron wore (and, by extension, the clothes that we all wear) served two primary functions – external and internal.

The external function is for the way others will view him, i.e. the High Priest needed to present the proper image of himself to the people, as befitting his elevated and lofty stature. He had to dress in such a way that the Jewish people would respect and honor his position, thus enabling him to influence them and inspire them to greatness. Had the High Priest walked around in garb that was inappropriate for his position, or in clothing that was ill-fitting or dirty, he would not be able to do his job properly, as no one would respect him.

This is similar to what the Talmud says regarding Torah scholars. In Tractate Shabbos 114a, Rabbi Chiya bar Abba taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: It is a disgrace for a Torah scholar to go out into the street with patched-up shoes. [By dressing shabbily, the scholar loses the respect of the people, and reduces his ability to teach and influence them].

The internal function is to remind him of his special stature, i.e. it was crucial that the High Priest remember at all times that he was holier than the others around him due to his elevated status. Thus, the unique vestments he wore served as a kind of ‘barrier’ between the High Priest and the others around him, never letting him forget who he was to become just like them.

This was also the greatness of the Jewish people during the 210 years that they were in Egypt, surrounded and subjugated by a perverse and lowly nation. The Midrash tells us that “they never changed their Jewish garments”, i.e. they purposely wore distinctly Jewish garb as a reminder of who they were, and as a barrier against assimilating into the culture around them.

The Ksav Sofer explains that in our verse, where Moses was commanded to make special garments for the High Priest, the Torah is actually coming to praise Aaron that he didn’t need these clothing for their internal function. Aaron was so conscious of his spiritually elevated status that he never forgot even for a moment who he was and what he needed to accomplish as High Priest.

Rather, Moses was to make garments for his brother Aaron “for glory and splendor” - i.e. for their external function, so that the Jewish people should see the splendor and greatness of the High Priest and have the proper respect for the position.

The Jewish people are referred to in the Torah as a Mamleches Kohanim, a “kingdom of priests” (see Exodus 19:6). This means that part of our “job description” as Jews is that we are to be dedicated to leading the world toward an understanding and acceptance of G-d’s mission, much like the Priests in the Temple who were the teachers and leaders of the Jewish people.

And in order for us to accomplish that lofty goal, we, too, need to wear special “Jewish” garments for both their internal and external functions.

We must wear modest clothing to remind us at all times that we humans are spiritual beings and are not the same as our naked French poodles. Additionally, as Jews we need to constantly remind ourselves that we have a unique mission to bring goodness and G-dliness to the world.

As well, we need to be dressed appropriately – as human beings and as Jews – to command the proper respect we need in order to influence those around us. As Mark Twain once quipped, “Naked people have little or no influence on society”. A Kippah worn on a Jewish man’s head is a sign of nobility, a “priestly garment’ that tells the world that underneath it is someone who stands for G-d and for Torah values.

These two primary functions of clothing are actually reflected in the two main Hebrew words for ‘clothing’ – levush and beged. The Talmud tells us that the word levush is actually a contraction of two Hebrew words – lo bush – which mean “no embarrassment”. And the word beged comes from the Hebrew word bogeid, which means “betraying”.

When we wear proper, modest levush, we remind ourselves that we are far more elevated than the unclothed beings walking around us, thus removing the ‘embarrassment’ of being considered like just another animal.

Yet, at the same time, our beged, which is also meant to project a certain image of ourselves to the world as human beings and as Jews, can easily ‘betray’ who we really are inside. How many people do we know who present themselves one way – through the clothing or uniform they wear – but who are actually very different under that clothing?

In closing – or should I say “in clothing” – I believe the take-home message here is that as much as it’s true what they say that “clothes make the man”, it is even more true that “clothes make the Jew”. And if we want to “fix the world” as we are meant to do as Jews, we had better pick the proper wardrobe or it ain’t gonna happen!

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