Parashat Tetzaveh: Do clothes really make us who we are?

In this sidra, Moses is told toBring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that they may minister to Me in the priest’s office, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Eleazer and Itamar, Aaron’s sons.  And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for splendour and for beauty.  And you shall speak to 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 to Me in the priest’s office.  And these are the garments which they shall make: a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a tunic of chequer work, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office.”(Exodus 28:2ff)

What is the connection between the sacred garments and the work of the priest? Why should the sacred garments be for splendour and beauty? And why should they be made by people who are especially wise?

Rav Kook reminds us that clothing has more than a utilitarian function, to protect us from the weather and to encase our fragile skin in more hardy materials. While animals have fur and feathers for such purposes, we humans are different, we are more vulnerable and have to create an outer layer for defence.  But that is not our only difference – in creating clothes we can also affect how we feel about ourselves and others, clothes can influence our attitudes and our feelings, alter our state of mind, signal something important to ourselves and to others. Essentially clothes can be powerful drivers of our sense of self. It may be simple such as the wearing of a uniform or professional outfit which gives us confidence and standing, it may be bridal wear or mourning outfits signifying change of status or emotional state. Rav Kook sees this function of clothing as having great theological and  ethical value. “It stresses those qualities that separate us from the animals and their simple physical needs. It enables us to attain a heightened sense of holiness and dignity. By covering our heads, wearing modest dress, and fulfilling the mitzvot of tefillin and tzitzit, we deepen our awareness of God’s presence.” (Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 354)

When God sends Adam and Eve out from the Garden of Eden to the exposed world outside, the first thing God did was to make them clothes – garments made of skin to replace the ones they had made themselves of fig leaves to cover their newly realised nakedness (gen 3). It is an act of protection and of love, and similarly to when God marks Cain in order to safeguard him as he wanders the world, it is also a reminder of an awareness of God, that we are more than we appear to be, that we have a spiritual hinterland,  a layer of security beyond the material.

Jewish tradition speaks of Hiddur Mitzvah – a concept derived from the verse in Exodus at the Song of the Sea  (15:2) “This is my God and I will glorify him”. The Midrash tells us that since it is not really possible to add glory to God, this must really mean that we glorify God by the way we perform the mitzvot – and from this develops the art of beautiful ritual artefacts – sifrei torah covers, tallitot, Shabbat candlesticks, Seder plates etc.  So clearly the notion of Aaron and his sons wearing splendid and beautiful clothes for the priestly function could be seen as part of this idea. And yet, it seems to me that more is being spoken of in the special clothes for priestly work.  Aaron’s clothing sanctifies him. It is not just the wearing of respectfully clean and tidy clothing that is happening here, the clothes literally change the person in some way.

The Talmud makes this idea of clothing changing our perceptions even more explicit “. Said R. Abbahu in R. Johanan’s name, and some derive ultimately [the teaching] from R. Eleazar the son of R.Simeon:  “Because Scripture says “And you shall gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute: When wearing their [appointed] garments, they are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood. (Zevachim 17b).

So the Talmudic rabbis understood that the garments invest them with the priesthood – and removing their priestly clothing will separate them from the priesthood – it is a startling assertion if true, but I think something else is really meant here.  The priestly garments did not make the priesthood, nor did they remove it but they helped Aaron and the priests to feel like they were priests, they integrated the internal reality with the external appearance, and for something so important as ministering before God this was of critical importance.

I once heard of a condition called “Bishop’s syndrome” – I have no idea if it is really there in the medical textbooks, but essentially it describes the sense of disbelief when someone climbs high in the clerical hierarchy and fears that somehow they are not deserving of this status or title. It is characterised by the anxious thought that “one day they will find out I am not a proper bishop”. I guess it could be called “head teacher’s syndrome” or you could insert any role which requires competence and responsibility.   To wear the ‘uniform’ can help ‘create’ the persona, both for the person wearing it and for the person who sees it, and we see this most powerfully today in the medical white coat, or the hi-vis jackets.

I experience this phenomenon when I wrap myself in tallit. Not only am I delineating time for prayer and focus on meaning, I am delineating space around myself, and signalling to myself and to others that I am becoming my more prayerful self.  The fact that I am wearing the uniform of the mitzvot, that I am enwrapped and made rapt in the warmth of prayer, allowing myself to immerse in the sea of prayer and conversation with God helps me in both the preparation and the act.  The beauty of my tallit, the knowledge that it was made with love and mindfulness, all help to make this a special time.  

I also experience this phenomenon when sitting in shul and seeing all the people around me wearing tallit, people who walk in to the room as ordinary Jews somehow become the people of Israel, flocking together, shawls draped over shoulders, creating a sea of prayer – and the opposite occurs when they take off their tallitot and return to the world of the ordinary.

Aaron and his sons are to wear special garments in order to minister before God. The clothes help them cross the boundary from the ordinary to the extraordinary. They help the people to see them not as frail human beings but as priests of God. The fact that the clothes are beautiful, that they are made with mindfulness all help to foster the sense of transformation.

We see clothes today as signifiers often of role or of status – but rarely do we think of them as the agents of change. And rarely do we recognise the power of clothing to direct our thinking, so when we are impressed by someone in expensive or designer wear we may forget that the person inside is not the clothing. The person inside is special, is a child of God, is unique and has gifts and talents, feelings and thoughts –the clothing is an outer layer designed for protection and action. The body is the clothing of the soul – and our tradition reminds us that when the clothing of our material self wears out and is respectfully disposed of, the soul will continue with God.

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