Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tetzaveh

Let’s talk about clothes.

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, relates details about the priest’s clothing.  Their outfits were quite elaborate, containing a breastpiece, long coat (ephod), robe, fringed tunic, headdress and sash.  (Sorry, no shoes are mentioned.)  They were made of gold, jewels and finely woven fabrics.

Two curious details.  The forbidden mixture of wool and linen was required for the priest’s clothes.  Why was something forbidden to the masses required of the elite?  It is because clothing signifies station.  To wear something that is inaccessible to the majority sets the wearer apart.  God forbids this mixture to everyone but the priest in order that his very clothing might set him apart.

Bells and pomegranates adorned the hem of the priest’s robe in order that his clothing would announce his arrival before he actually entered the room.  According to the rabbis this teaches us that we must also announce our presence when entering a room.  The priest could not sneak up on anyone, most especially God when entering the Holy of Holies.

Clothing of course signifies many things. We wear clothes to fit in.  And we wear clothes to stand out.  Unlike the priest our clothing does not choose us.  We instead choose our clothes.   We decide what impression we wish to make.  During biblical times the priest’s clothes were assigned.  They signified his standing in Israelite society. 

We believe that today we are free to dress as we please.  But are such decisions really free?  Would you feel less comfortable if your doctor did not wear a white coat?  Would you feel uneasy if a plain clothes police officer pulled you over for speeding instead of a uniformed officer?  Is a rabbi less of a rabbi when not wearing a tallis and kippah?  Every year at least one of my students asks me if I wear my kippah all the time.  “Do you wear your kippah in the shower?” the wise guy asks.  (And I of course answer, “No because then I would not be able to wash my hair.”)  I imagine they are thinking: if the rabbi is always a rabbi then he must always dress like a rabbi.

In an age when seventh grade girls dress in mini-skirts to appear more attractive and Middle Eastern women dress in chadors to become less attractive, we might do well to recover the meaning our clothing conveys to others.  What is it that we wish to signify by the clothes we wear?  As much as we might wish, it is not only about what we want to wear.  It is as well what others see in our clothes.  This is what the details in Parashat Tetzaveh teach us. 

To be honest I prefer shorts, a t-shirt and no shoes (blasphemy!).  But then again clothes are not just about being comfortable.  Clothes are not only about what we choose to wear.  They are as well what others see of us.  And like the priest of old they are about announcing our presence.

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