CLOTHESMINDEDNESS: You Are What You Wear

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL

Motel the tailor wanders into a small flophouse late one stormy winter night. “Quite full,” says the innkeeper. “Let’s see . . . I’ve got a single Cossack in one of the rooms up on the top floor. Your best bet is to climb into the bed beside him. Sorry, it’s the best I can do.”

Grateful for a place to park his weary bones, the traveler quickly makes for the staircase, halting only to request that the innkeeper wake him well before dawn. “Got a train to catch,” he importantly blurts out.

Before he knows it, there’s a hand shaking him awake. “It’s well before dawn,” says a voice; “your train.”

He dresses hurriedly in the dark and rushes to the train station. On the way he passes a large mirror in an ornate frame. A Cossack in uniform looks back at him. “Oy! That idiot innkeeper!” he exclaims in dismay. “He woke up the Cossack instead of Motel the tailor. I’ll never have enough time to go back and wake myself up and still catch the train!”

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Bernie Markowitz hadn’t missed a single Minyan in twenty five years. Like clockwork, he could be depended upon to attend every class and lecture presented at the Synagogue. In short, you just couldn’t find a more committed member than Bernie.

But Bernie was not as steadfast as it appeared. With the increase of age, he began to feel somewhat sorry for himself; he felt like he was missing out on the best of what life had to offer.

“Come on Bernie, you’re getting older,” he’d tell himself, “You won’t be around forever. You’ve been good for so long, it’s time to have some fun in life.” So, Bernie broke down and planned a ten day junket to Las Vegas with some of his friends.

The morning of the trip Bernie appeared all dressed down for the occasion – Bermuda shorts, flowered shirt, dark sun glasses and a rakish hat perched on his head.

Upon arrival, he quickly retrieved his luggage and headed for the door. But alas, upon entering the taxi he trips on the curb and falls heavily to the ground. By the time it was over Bernie was left with a broken arm, leg and a couple of fractured ribs.

From his hospital bed he looks heavenward and, with a tear in his eye, calls out to the Almighty: “Dear G-d, twenty five years! Never missed a Minyan; did everything by the book and this is what I get… I didn’t even make it out of the airport… You call this fair?!”

A heavenly voice is suddenly heard: “Bernie, Bernie, is that you? I can’t tell you how sorry I am, but how in the world was I supposed to know that was you?!”

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Self-identity is a vital component of our complex human personality, yet its pursuit is anything but simple or ordinary. In fact, people spend a good part of their lives on this planet in search of their true identity and selfhood. Unfortunately, too many never actually locate their genuine self. No wonder that modern psychology has so much to say about this elusive endeavor:

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, discusses in great detail the priestly vestments worn by both the common Kohen (Priest) and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest): “And you shall make sacred garments for Aharon your brother for dignity and glory.” (Shemot 27:2)

These ornate and intricate garments required highly skilled artisans to be embroidered and fashioned. They included, among others, a jewel-studded breastplate, a honeycomb-woven tunic, an apron-like garment and a specially designed garment that was adorned with gold bells and woven pomegranates.

The priestly garments were designed to create an impressive visual effect. In the above passage, Moshe is commanded to instruct the Children of Israel regarding these garments. The verse attributes these vestments to honor and glory. In other words, the purpose of the priestly garb was to assure a positive physical appearance.

But why does G-d place such importance on the clothing of the Kohanim, after all isn’t a garment just a garment? Our Sages admonish us: “Not to look upon the container but at its contents.” Their message is that we should not be impressed by superficial behaviors or appearances. Instead, we are to assess a person based upon the individual’s inner-self.

So why does this week’s Torah portion so intricately detail the eight special garments worn by the Kohen — each of which played an integral role in the Tabernacle service? What is so important about clothes? Adam didn’t wear any when he first strolled through Paradise. Donning clothes would seem to only hide the “real” us from view, focusing not on the wine, but on the bottle it comes in.

These garments obviously contain an important message regarding the function, personality and worldview of those who wear them. What lessons can we learn from them?

The priestly garments illustrate the Torah’s method of dealing with human nature, since it was meant for human beings of flesh and blood. The Torah requires for the Kohen Gadol to wear beautiful garments, since that is what catches the attention of the fleshly eye. Yet the garments represent much more than attractive vestments. Every detail of the design is influenced by Divine will and guidance.

The observer is attracted to the beauty of the garments, but the initial interest is meant to lead to the contemplation of the ingenious laws which govern their design and structure and reflect a deeper essence. The observer comes to recognize that the greatest beauty is not the superficial material dimension, but rather the beauty from within. “All glorious is the king’s daughter within” (Psalms 45:14). Only after Adam and Chava eat from the Tree of “Knowledge” did they discover the importance of covering themselves.

Much as with our very identity, clothes appear to represent the outermost dimension of our being. They are the means by which we present ourselves to the world. However, by virtue of the importance of the garments worn by priests during the Temple service, the Torah conveys significant insight into the nature and importance of the outermost dimension.

Garments are meant to reveal as much as they are meant to conceal. How we package ourselves to the outside world is inextricably linked to who we are and how we understand ourselves. Proper discernment must hence be given as to how we choose to identify and portray ourselves.

We cannot, says the Torah, live one life on the inside and another on the outside. Our outer garments and identity must be consistent and in tune with our inner-self and being. Hence, note the Rabbis, nothing was permitted to rest between the actual body of the Kohen and the clothing that he wore. The garments of “honor and glory” were to become the very skin, if you will, of the Kohen.

This explains the juxtaposition of the narrative regarding the Priestly vestments and the opening discussion of our Parsha – the command to light the menorah each day, using only the purest of oil. The preeminent Torah commentator, Rashi, explains that only olives from the top of the tree were Kosher for the lamps of the Menorah, since they received maximum sunshine. They were then pounded in a mortar, but not ground up in a mill. In this fashion, there was no sediment whatsoever in the oil. However, for the meal-offerings, says Rashi, semi-pure oil was good enough.

It seems somewhat strange that a lesser quality oil would be adequate for the meal-offerings, which was consumed internally, yet only the very purest, cleanest oil could be used to feed the “Everlasting flame” of the menorah.

By way of explanation the commentaries assert that since the oil of the Menorah, unlike the oil of the meal offering, was used to make light, which includes spiritual illumination – that which is projected to the outside – it had to be of the purest, most integral, unadulterated, untarnished nature.

The clothes which we wear, bare a strong resemblance to the oil of the Menorah, since they function as a window into our character; a personification of who we are and for what we stand. When we are modest, neat, respectful in our dress and deportment – maintaining high standards of ethics and manner – we reflect and transmit the image of our maker in a positive way, and visa-versa. Accordingly, through its emphasis on clothes as trappings of holiness, the Torah is telling us to guard not only our actions, but also the way our actions appear to others.

On a deeper level this represents the relationship between the soul and the body – the body being the essential garment of the soul. Much as it was necessary for the garments worn by priests to reflect the inner essence of the priestly service and its spiritual characteristic – through a deliberate, methodical and meticulous formula , so too must our soul’s garment, on every level and sphere, be carefully designed and crafted to express and reflect its true inner essence.

When the body-garment does not properly fit and reflect the soul-essence, it is a formula for all kinds of problems, beginning with what is perhaps the most harmful malady of our time: “Identity crisis,” which wrecks havoc on our emotional, spiritual and mental wellbeing (Heaven forbid).

By following the Torah’s guidance regarding this crucial matter of wholesome human existence, we will certainly merit true inner and outer peace and wellbeing; peace of the soul and peace of the body, along with genuine fulfillment spiritually, emotionally and physically, along with the ultimate fulfillment; the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.

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