Clothing Ourselves in Sanctity

Tetzavveh | Purim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Feb 20, 2013 / 5773 | Holidays

Clothing offers keen insight in two complementary directions. First, the garments one wears reveals one’s personality. While a neat, well-fitting suit may convey a sense of professionalism and conservatism, jeans and a tie-dyed shirt reflect a casual, relaxed, and liberal sense of self. And just as clothing offers insight into the internal, so too does it give us a sense of what is transpiring around us: a kittel (white ritual robe worn at liminal moments) or tallit (prayer shawl) adorned signals a moment of prayerful reflection; tuxedos and gowns frequently tip us off to a wedding reception; and black garments often represent mourning. This week’s parashah, Parashat Tetzavveh, raises the issue of clothing in relation to sacred space. Moses and the Israelites are commanded, “You will make sacred vestments for Aaron, your brother, for honor and for glory.” How are we to relate to the sacred vestments described in the parashah? To what extent is such clothing intrinsically sacred? Or do these vestments impart sanctity only when adorned and at a particular moment in time?

In his explanation of our verse, Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Spanish exegete, suggests two possibilities regarding these bigdei kodesh, sacred garments. He writes that either these vestments are holy because “they are worn in a sacred place” or that they somehow impart kedushah (holiness) as described in Ezekiel: “They will put on other garments, lest they make the people consecrated by contact with their vestments” (44:19). According to Ibn Ezra then, harmony is achieved between clothing and space, affirming the sanctity of the act in which the participant is engaged; or that there is some mystical emanation—the clothing itself radiates holiness. Nahmanides takes the seriousness of these garments a step further. He writes, “The priestly garments were required to be made for their own sake, not merely as priestly accoutrements. It may even be that the one who made them was required to do so with kavanah, full intention, that they should serve the purpose specified for them.” Even the act of making the clothes must be endowed with a sense of holiness.

As Purim approaches, Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) reinforces the significance of clothing. As sleep evades a weary King Ahasuerus, he turns to the royal chronicles and realizes that Mordechai, who had saved the king’s life, was never rewarded for his heroism. Ahasuerus’s notorious advisor, Haman, is brought to him, and the king queries, “What should be done to the man that has brought glory to the kingdom?” Thinking that he will be the one to be honored, Haman enthusiastically answers that among other things, “They will bring royal clothing that the king is accustomed to wear” (Esther 6:8). Such clothing should be draped on the one to be honored. To Haman’s great displeasure, the tables are turned and he is forced to parade his nemesis, Mordechai, upon a royal horse and draped in kingly raiment. Haman and Ahasuerus understand well the power of clothing. These garments will call attention to Mordechai, marking him as a royal honoree deserving of the respect not simply of the king but of the entire Persian nation.

All too often we relate to clothing in a casual and superficial way. As evidenced both by our parashah and the Scroll of Esther, clothing conveys messages as well as holiness. It is a lesson worth keeping in mind as we consider how to properly adorn ourselves in the synagogue. While many communities seek to nurture a more relaxed environment, our parashah gives us pause to think otherwise. Clothing is truly for “for honor and for glory”—for the honor of ourselves and for the glory of God.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.