This week’s Torah portion begins with the details of lighting the ner tamid, the eternal light. Interestingly this required the priest’s constant care and attention which is why ner tamid is better translated as “always light.”
The remainder of the portion details how the priestly garments are to be made. There was a blue thread (techelet) that ran through the headdress. The garments contained finely spun gold thread. And according to the rabbis, shatnez, the mixture of wool and linen, was even required for the making of the priest’s clothes.
With all of these chapters and verses about the priest’s clothes I have been thinking about the clothes we wear. What do these clothes say about us? Like you I receive many different invitations with directions of what I am supposed to wear to different occasions: black tie required, black tie optional, business casual, and my favorite, smart casual (with this one, I always worry that I might be labeled not so smart if I wear the wrong outfit). Our society is distinguished by the clothing we wear. Athletes wear uniforms. Their uniforms are supposed to make a statement about their team and its history. The military wears uniforms. Remember how powerful it was to have a marine in his full dress uniform read the prayer for our country on Rosh Hashanah? Would it have been the same if he did not wear his uniform? I think not.
We would like to say that our clothes don’t matter and that the details for an ancient priesthood are irrelevant, but this is simply not the case. It does matter. Moreover our choices are not entirely our own. They are sometimes prescribed, whether it be by the Torah or a friend’s invitation.
This is why I find wearing a tallis so powerful. It is how I dress up for prayer. It does not matter if I am wearing my nicest suit or even my shorts, when I come to pray I always wear my tallis. It is the nicest clothing I could imagine wearing for this occasion. It is as well the great equalizer. Rich and poor, all wear a tallis. This is also why according to tradition all are buried in a white shroud. All are equal when standing before God. We no longer have priests!
The tradition attempts to remind us that clothing does not make the person. Death is the ultimate reminder of this truth. The inner is more important than the outer. As we saw with Bernie Madoff, dressing a crook in beautiful suits does not make him less of a crook. And this is why white collar criminals (think about the term!) offend our sensibilities even more. It is because they hide their criminality beneath a veneer of goodness, a facade of fine clothes and white shirts.
The Talmud suggests that the worst thing you can do is to say you are religious while also cheating in business. To suggest to others that you are religious, by wearing a kippah or a tallis, and then cheat is to add defaming our great religion to the sin of stealing. To be ritually scrupulous but ethically lacking is to not understand the true meaning of our religion, or any religion for that matter.
This is why I am thankful that we let go of the priesthood and its dress. The dress of office too often corrupts. Perhaps that is part of the lesson in today’s Egypt. The suit can never make the man. Mubarak’s Western suits did not make him Western in outlook or world view (he was certainly no advocate for democracy). I am of course thankful for the alliances he forged with the United State and Israel. But we must be on guard. Just because Egypt’s youth dresses like us and Facebooks like us does not mean their values will hue to our own. You can judge only so much by the clothes people wear.
This is exactly why Judaism dresses the Torah as we once dressed the priest, in a robe adorned with pomegranates and bells. We place our faith in a book not a person. It alone holds a place of royalty in our lives. And that is as it should be. No person—only a book—is elevated above everything else.
Finally, many of the stories in our tradition depicting the messiah imagine him dressed as a beggar. Here is why. You can’t then be fooled by his dress. Then there can be no pretense about his intentions. His goodness is then clearly inner and not outer. You can’t be fooled by his suit or even his priestly garb. It is only about the good he does.
And that is how we must be judged. Dress in finery, but even more important dress your acts with compassion and goodness. Dress your words in finely spun words of healing and friendship. Those will always be the most beautiful and lasting garments you can wear.