In discussions with pre-b'nei mitzvah students and parents every year, I ask how they would feel about someone attending services in ripped jeans. What about a woman wearing a dress or blouse showing cleavage? What is proper attire in a synagogue? Some claim that what a person wears is irrelevant. What matters is that they come with the desire to pray. Connection to God is not defined by what is worn. Others argue that of course it matters what a person wears. When someone has something on that most others would say is provocative or undignified, the focus is on them rather than on God.
In Hamlet, the character Polonius proclaims, "Apparel oft proclaims the man" (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1.3). The only thing to add is that apparel no less proclaims the woman.
This week's parashah deals with the special clothing worn by Aaron and his sons. It is possible to limit the text only to its historical context, revealing something about an ancient, though no longer relevant, practice of a religious elite. But the insight into what religious leaders wore is a window to a larger understanding about what our clothing does, indeed, proclaim about all of us. At times we wear clothes to be noticed, at other times to blend in. Our clothing indicates our status, the groups with whom we identify, and the delicate balance between belonging and individual uniqueness. In short, through our apparel, we engage in an ongoing game of hide-and-seek.
This parashah occurs just before Purim, traditionally associated with masquerading. Purim reminds us that clothing does not only reveal something about us; clothing also covers up and conceals. The theme of concealment is central on this holiday. It is found in the very name of Esther, which is derived from the root samech-tav-reish (meaning "hidden" in Hebrew). Throughout the story, the heroine remains hidden to all except Mordecai. Even the Holy One is hiding-for this is one of only two books in the Bible where there is no mention of God. Purim is, then, a most adult peekaboo-playing with the notion of hiddenness, touching on our deepest fears of being known and most liberating sense of openly revealing ourselves.
Of course, every day we each need to ask, "Who is the real me? What do I seek to hide? What do I reveal about myself, and to whom do I reveal it?" On Purim we pretend to be someone we are not. It reminds us that we often hide behind what we show to the world. The flip side of Purim is in fully revealing who we are--a task difficult and fraught with risk. The day most traditionally associated with standing spiritually "naked," our truest self revealed, is Yom Kippur. There is more than a passing connection between these two holidays.
"Yom Kippurim? Yom Ke-Purim! The Day of Atonement is a day [in Hebrew, yom] like [in Hebrew, ke ] Purim" (Tikkunai Zohar 57b). At first glance, this seems an odd comparison. Could two Jewish observances be any more different? Yom Kippur is a day of self-denial. We refrain from bodily pleasures. On Purim we indulge ourselves-eating and drinking almost to excess. One is a day for introspection, meditation, and repentance; the other is a time for clowning and having a good time. What conceivably could these two days share?
The answer is that both holidays focus on the masks we wear. On Purim we don masks, a reflection of Esther who hides her true self and Jewish identity. On Yom Kippur, we are unmasked, facing ourselves as we really are, without pretense. We can fool those at work, we can hide who we are from our children, we can lie to our lovers and spouses, but on Yom Kippur our true self is revealed.
Our parashah offers a worthy guide for what we might, at our best, reveal about ourselves throughout the year. "Make sacral vestments . . . for dignity [l'chavod] and adornment [l'tifaret ]" (Exodus 28:2). We live in an age when there is no shortage of adornment (tifaret). There is a plethora of choices in the clothes we wear, nearly limitless in variety, style, color, and fabric. Such beautiful garb is not necessarily a bad thing. Nice clothing can engender a sense of inner pride, reminding the wearer that she or he is a vessel of God's image, beautiful just because she or he exists. Tifaret can, however, turn one to an inflated and false sense of arrogance. Indeed, the Hebrew verb of the same root (pei-alef-reish) can mean to "embellish." Just "looking good" is not enough.
The balance to tifaret is provided by the need for clothing ourselves in "dignity." Some commentators claim that the priests wore their vestments to convey a sense of distinction and authority (Ramban on Exodus 28:2). The word l'chavod, however, can be understood to have a very different implication based on the Hebrew root kaf-vet-dalet, which can mean "important" or "weighty." The garments of the priest were so ornate that the wearer might well have felt an overblown sense of self-importance. In fact, the priests' responsibility was a weighty burden. Thus, the priests wore God's name on their forehead to remind them of whom they served. Their duty to the people was reinforced by the names of the tribes borne on their shoulders (Exodus 28:9-12). To wear clothes with "dignity," therefore, is not about self-aggrandizement, but service; it is about humility, a sense of place, and a reminder of purpose.
L'chavod ul'tifaret--"for dignity and adornment." Clothing does matter, and what we wear hints to the questions we play hide-and-seek with every day of our lives: What really matters? How do I see the worth of every soul? Am I willing to bear the burdens of others? What do I think I can hide that, in the end, is always revealed?
Our apparel does proclaim us. The question is--what is it that we wish to have others see?
Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz is the senior rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York. He has taught at Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, JLearn on Long Island, and the URJ Kallah. He is immediate past president of the Alumni Association of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and was chair of the Joint Commission on Sustaining Rabbinic Education. He can be reached at email@example.com.