How We Wear Our Judaism
The more we know about animals, the more they seem to have what we consider to be human capabilities. Beavers build dams and porpoises communicate in sophisticated ways, while apes use tools and may even reason on some level. But, human beings are the only species to make their own clothes. The wasp’s nest has no garment district.
Human beings wear clothes for two main, but contradictory reasons in addition to the obvious one of warmth: to cover, and to highlight. The Bible contains several examples of both these uses. Adam and Eve made themselves fig leaf garments in order to cover their nakedness. Jacob wore Esau’s clothes in order to mask his identity and pose as Esau. Later, Jacob gave Joseph a special coat as a sign of favor. This week’s Torah reading, coming after a description of the Sanctuary, portrays the garments to be worn by Aaron and his sons when they officiate there as kohanim. Aaron, as the first kohen gadol (high priest) must be outfitted in a way that will communicate his importance. A post-biblical work Ben Sirach, describes Aaron’s garments as a sign of being chosen by God for his priestly role.
He blessed him with stateliness, and put a glorious robe on him
He clothed him in perfect splendor, and strengthened with him
the symbols of authority.
It was an everlasting covenant for him [Aaron] and for his descendants
as long as the heavens endure
To minister to the Lord and serve as priest
And bless his people in His name.
(Ben Sirach, 45)
In a noteworthy coincidence or perhaps not a coincidence at all, the Torah reading this Shabbat morning will be followed in the evening by the reading of the Megillah of Esther, the centerpiece of the Purim service. If the formal part of the Purim reading is the Megillah, the informal part is expressed by dressing in costumes. This folk tradition is shared with other cultures and religions that feature a springtime carnival, a day of masking and covering, a day when it is all right to pretend to be someone else. The Book of Esther, itself, is filled with mention of clothes and of concealment and revelation. The very name of Esther is related to the Hebrew word hester (hiding.)
The story hinges on the fact that Esther becomes queen of Persia without it being known that she is a Jew. When Esther approaches the king to invite him to a banquet (at which she will foil Haman’s plot) she wears her royal attire-simultaneously drawing attention to her status as queen and disguising her Jewish identity. Meanwhile, Haman’s plot begins to unravel when, in a reverse of fortune, he is forced to dress Mordecai in finery and parade him throughout the city as “the man the king desires to honor.” (Esther 6:7) At her second banquet, Esther at last reveals that she is a Jew and the king has Haman executed. Mordecai, now confirmed in the king’s favor, exits the scene in royal robes.
The Book of Esther, despite its triumphal conclusion, provides a chilling view of the hatred of Jews. It is easy to use Purim as an occasion to sound the alarm against the Hamans of today. Yet, Haman was right when he told the king that the Jews are a people whose laws are different from those of any other nation. (Esther 3:8) The larger question for Jews today is: how should one wear one’s Judaism? Not in the literal sense of clothing, but in the sense of expression. It is a question not so much of cloaking oneself as a Jew, but what a Jew does as a Jew. God told all the Israelites at Sinai that they were to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6) The former role of kohanim is now the territory of all Jews-to serve the Lord and to bless the people in His name.
Shabbat shalom and Purim Sameah.
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer