Clothing Ourselves in Holiness
Having received instructions for building the mishkan last week, in Parasha Tetzaveh we are now told how to go about lighting it, dressing for service within it, and perfuming its space with incense. Maybe it’s just because I’m at the stage of pregnancy where my regular clothes don’t quite fit anymore, or maybe just that I’m preoccupied with finding a good Purim costume to wear to the megillah reading and shpiel next week, but I found it fascinating that the majority of this parasha was given over to a detailed discussion of making and wearing a set of garments.
Once again, we are urged to gather rare and beautiful elements, as we did to build the mishkan. Donations of linen, wool, precious dyes and costly metals will be combined into special garments, worn only by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, when he enters the Holy of Holies for service.
"And you shall speak unto all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron's garments to sanctify him, that he may minister unto Me in the priest's office."
From a pure white linen robe and turban, to a blue wool cloak, a multicolored apron and breastplate, and gold bells, pomegranates, and engraved plates, the Kohen will be enveloped in beauty.
Aside from the symbolic weight of these rare colors and metals, the parasha evokes for me the purely sensual aspects of these garments – soft fibers rustling against his skin, the tinkling of tiny golden bells and pomegranates along the hem as he walks, the weight of the multiple layers and the headdress as he bows and rises. Initially, this section reminded me most of the hours before my wedding: the care that went into getting ready, the unfamiliar weight of the long dress, and the beautiful jewelry that I borrowed for the day, all coming together to create a physical experience that changed how I felt inside, as well as changing my outward appearance.
So I wondered, was the donning of this outfit intended to “sanctify” the Kohen Gadol for service by focusing his inward attention, as he prepared to enter G-d’s presence? Certainly, this is the person most in need of such preparation ceremonies, about to undergo an experience only granted otherwise to the prophets. Just as a bride going in to meet her bridegroom undergoes an inward transformation, surely the Kohen Gadol, as a representative of all Israel, could be seen as a spouse, coming in to meet the beloved, performing the rites that join them together in covenant. Indeed, we echo this relationship as we lay tefillin, another kind of ritual adornment, when we quote Hosea:
“I will betroth you to Me forever. I will betroth you in righteousness, with justice, with love, and with compassion. I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness and you shall be intimate with G-d.”
Or perhaps this special outfit was intended to “sanctify him” in the view of all Yisrael, maintaining the beautiful outward appearance that would command the respect and awe of the assembled tribes, as they saw him enter the mishkan to represent them before HaShem… Both G-d and Moshe surely knew that after this generation was gone, some reassurance must be given to the people that the leaders were still divinely charged, and a fancy outfit can be very persuasive.
But G-d also says,
“that he may minister unto Me in the priest's office.”
So were these garments, like the requirements for unblemished sacrifices, specified simply to create a pleasing sensual experience for G-d, G-dself? This last one, particularly, intrigues me, given that we may ascribe no physical attributes to G-d…
In trying to understand the meaning of this outfit in the parasha, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the Torah’s overall approach to issues of dress and adornment.
When we think of Jewish clothing, the first things that come to mind, like the kippah (or yarmulke), the Eastern-European style of modest dress assumed by many Orthodox Jews, or even the crazy costumes we wear at Purim, are usually minhag – customs that have assumed the force of law, but not specifically commanded in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible. - Let me assure you, there is nowhere in the Torah that says, “on Purim, while you are drinking and eating and blotting out the name of Haman, be sure to wear a funny wig, or a pair of googly-eye glasses.”
On the other hand, the Torah does make specific references to clothing and garments in a number of places, but often in ways which are hard for us to understand. Deuteronomy 22, for example, contains the commandment about Shatnez – the prohibition on mixing wool and linen (Deut. 22:11). Such a mixture renders a garment pasul (not kosher) – except that this combination is specifically required for the priestly garments! There are commentaries suggesting that Shatnez is forbidden specifically to prevent ordinary Jews from falsely robing themselves in priestly garments, but this mitzvah is generally categorized by the rabbis as a “chok,” or a commandment which cannot be understood using reason, but must be followed because G-d commands it.
Yet again, there are some clothing-specific mitzvot which seem at first both clear and easy to follow, but are no longer common except among the Orthodox. Deuteronomy 22(:5) also gives us the negative commandments about gendered clothing: That men shall not wear women’s clothing, and women shall not wear men’s clothing. Given the perils that often came to our ancestors in the Torah from figures in disguise – angels seeking to wrestle, daughters-in-law seeking a baby, younger sons seeking a blessing, even the wrong wife hiding under a veil – this seems almost too mild a warning. Yet obviously, the concerns this mitzvah represents about gender mixing, and perhaps about inappropriate socialization of the sexes, do not have the same meaning in an egalitarian society. (Note that Purim, when we dress up in costumes and disguises, is the one time of year when this commandment is traditionally considered lifted, and we can legitimately cross-dress to our heart’s content.)
Aside from mixing wool and linen, the Tanakh neither prescribes nor prohibits any particular fabrics or garments, although we are warned by example that flashy dressing can get us into trouble – think of Joseph and his coat of many colors.
Clearly, in Parasha Tetzaveh, we are looking at mitzvot around clothing and adornment that relate specifically to times of entering the Divine presence, so I turned next to those particular customs and mitzvot - and ran smack into the contrast between clothing and nakedness.
The very first reference to clothing in the Torah comes in the first portion of Bereishit, when Adám (“Earth”) and Chava (“Life-force”) have shared fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, undergone a transformation in awareness, and suddenly reached for the nearest fig leaf to cover their nakedness. In the context of this week’s parasha, where even the High Priest must dress to the nines to meet G-d, this seems to make sense: of course they are embarrassed to walk out and meet G-d naked. But on further thought, the traditional view of Adam and Eve’s sudden awareness as shame about their naked bodies cannot hold up in a Jewish perspective: for one of the most personal interactions we have with G-d – immersion in a mikveh – not only allows, but requires, us to be completely naked.
Why is this so?
Think about the way we use clothing at Purim. Clothing can protect us from the gaze of others; it can disguise our true identities, or reveal something about us to others. At its best, clothing can help us to become what we want to be; at its worst, clothing is a costume which can hide us from ourselves. Too often, we let ourselves believe that we truly are what we wear – casual, artsy, flamboyant, frum…
When we have no clothing, we are completely revealed, not to one another, or to G-d, but to ourselves. (G-d, one presumes, is like Superman – x-ray vision renders our physical disguises inadequate.) In the mikveh, we are asked to let go of our fig leaves, drop our disguises, our protection, and know ourselves, in order to know HaShem. If you have ever been to a mikveh, you know how terrifying, and liberating, that can be. For Adam and Eve, their sudden self-awareness was overwhelming, perhaps incapacitating, and as G-d approached, they reached out for something with which to shield themselves from that self-knowledge. This is part of the challenge we all face in encountering the sacred.
So logically, we must then ask, why do we not come to synagogue naked? Surely self-awareness is desirable at all times, but especially during prayer…
Well, aside from issues of fashion and weather, the Torah clearly distinguishes between what is appropriate when alone with G-d, and what is appropriate in a group. Moshe, for example, does not air his doubts and worries before all of Israel, or even before his family, but privately to G-d. In contrast, remember the scene at Sinai when the assembled Israelites are offered the opportunity to enter a new covenant with the Eternal – in unison, this motley group of former slaves and wanderers exclaims, “All the words G-d has said, we will do.” Each way of confronting the Divine is necessary: our personal interactions with the sacred allow for the complexity of real human response, while communal interactions allow for the joy of shared purpose and values. In the mikveh, we commune privately; in religious services, we commune, communally, with the Omnipresent.
So maybe the focus in this parasha on clothing, the most material and embodied preparation for worship, is meant to draw our attention to the multiple levels of awareness required when we approach the Divine: internal awareness or centering, our external relations with others, AND the mutual, back-and-forth communion we have with HaShem.
Before the Kohen Gadol approaches G-d’s presence, he must remove his usual clothing, then bathe, be anointed with oil, and don the priestly garments. Echoes of this process in our current practice, both in the private experience of mikveh and the public wearing of kippot, seem to focus on cultivating a self-awareness that encourages holy action.
The High Priest’s headdress includes a gold plate inscribed with the words, “Kadosh L’HaShem” - Holy to G-d. The kippah which many of us wear today was not commanded in the Tanakh, but adopted voluntarily by ordinary Jews, inspired by this headdress, as a way to show respect to HaShem, and to cultivate a holy awareness. The Talmud tells us that the purpose of wearing a kippah is to remind us of G-d, who is the Higher Authority "above us." (Kiddushin 31a)
Another type of holy apparel which serves the same purpose is tzitzit, which are specifically commanded in the Torah to all Israel.
In Numbers 15, G-d speaks to Moses directly, saying:
"Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes (tzitzit) in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them… " (Numbers 15:38)
Like the kippah, tzitzit are explicitly defined as aids to sanctification, by reminding us of the mitzvot, which can make us better citizens toward each other, and better able to perform true worship to the Source of all Life. Although both kippot and tzitzit are usually described as facilitating internal transformations of awareness, that change in awareness also changes our actions and demeanor, and thus affects those around us.
In reading through this parasha, I kept recalling an experience of mistaken identity I had when we first moved to Virginia for grad school several years ago. I had stopped at a gas station along the highway, and was at the pump – yes, we were allowed to pump our own gas there – when I saw two middle-aged Amish men come out of the gas station and get into the front seats of a red Honda next to me. They were followed, to my astonishment, by two middle aged Amish women, who climbed into the backseat, and then they all took off. What about the horse and buggy? I stood there dumbfounded, until the gas finished pumping. Later that week, someone explained to me that they were probably Mennonites; similar dress, different lifestyle. Ah, the messages our clothing sends...
In Virginia, we would regularly see Mennonite women, several children in tow, at the grocery store or the fabric store, all in floral or pastel button-down shirts, long skirts, and starched caps. They dress this way, formally, every day, to remind themselves that every day is holy, every day comes from G-d. They do not wait for one day a week to put on their best clothes and their best behavior.
I’ll say that part again - their best clothes and their best behavior. As physical and spiritual beings, what we wear affects how we feel, how we act, and how we are seen by others. This connection is where the parasha’s meaning becomes clear. The clothes of the Kohen Gadol, like the decoration of the mishkan, are not important for their material beauty. They are important because they help to bring holiness into the world.
In Parasha Tetzaveh, we are presented with at least three possibilities for bringing holiness into the world.
Like someone in a mikveh, or like the Kohen Gadol bathing, being anointed, and donning his spectacular clothing, we may prepare ourselves for holiness in ways that cause us to become self-aware, and effect an internal transformation.
Like the Kohen Gadol appearing, resplendent, before the people, we may project an outward attitude or character that edifies and helps those who see and interact with us.
And, like the Kohen Gadol entering the Holy of Holies in all his finery to offer service, we may uphold the mitzvot, doing all the good that we are asked to do, in ways that are pleasing and beautiful to the Source of Life.
This may seem an odd thing to think about as we go into Purim, where we mask and costume ourselves, turn the world topsy-turvy and set it back to rights. This is a silly holiday for fun, wine, food, and celebration, not a somber day of holiness. In truth, G-d is not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Esther – but look closer: a holy presence, something Divine, is clearly revealed through the righteous actions of Mordechai, Esther, and even Vashti. In many ways, this story of trouble and strife, with G-d’s face seeming to be hidden, resonates more with our lives today than does a miraculous revelation in which G-d seems to be the Israelites’ personal tailor. It can be difficult, in our ordinary lives, going about our mundane tasks, to feel the holiness underlying everything we see and do, to remember that we ourselves are blessed with opportunities for bringing holiness into the world.
So, after Purim, when you return to your workday world, try something new. Think of it as one last chaser to the holiday. You’ve taken off your masks and costumes, recovered from the Manishevitz (hopefully), and filled up on sweets, and now it’s time to go back to the everyday. But after Purim, the everyday doesn’t look quite the same.
In Sarah Laughed (McGraw Hill, 2005), Vanessa Ochs offers a drash in which Esther’s perceived beauty is simply the result of her remarkable ability to see the beauty in others. After Purim, as you prepare for the day, imagine that you are like Esther, taking off the dull, ordinary mask that hides true holiness from us. As you peel away the mundane disguise, see shining underneath, your coworkers, your family, your friends, yourself, all B’tzelem Elohim, reflecting the face of the Divine. With this golden radiance in your mind, realize that as you get ready for the day, as you prepare to enter the presence of these other Divine souls, you, like the Kohen Gadol, are preparing to enter G-d’s presence.
- As you shower and shave, think for a moment about who you are, truly, and what is at the core of your being in this world – have a “mini-mikveh minute” to be naked to yourself for a moment of self-awareness.
- Choose an outfit that makes you feel, inside, that this is a truly special event. Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry you save for special occasions, or a shirt that’s more comfortable than what you usually wear.
- Instead of rushing around, take a moment to center yourself, so that you can enter your community with an expression of calm and joy that makes those around you feel the beauty you bring to all you do.
- And then think to yourself – what can I do today, in my interactions with those around me, that would please the Eternal as much as the beauty of a holy garment or a fragrant incense offered up in the temple?
When we can all do this every day, then we will truly have built and adorned a mishkan together, where G-d may dwell among us.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Purim Sameach!