On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - T'tzaveh: Symbolism in Garments

In this weekly podcast, we will offer insight into the weekly Torah portion, condensing 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom into just 10 minutes of modern-day commentary. This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs delves deep into parashat T'tzaveh from the book of Exodus. Enjoy!


Welcome to episode 4 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Every week we come to you with a shot of insight into the weekly Torah portion, condensing 2000 years of Jewish wisdom into just ten minutes of modern day commentary. But of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. And we really want to hear what you think. You can weigh in on this week's Torah portion and what you hear today by talking to us on Twitter, our handle is @URJ. By liking us at facebook.com/reformjudaism, and you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or download from reformjudaism.org. Each week we will hear from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In this episode he delves deeper into Parashat T'tzaveh from the Book of Exodus.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat T'tzaveh from the Book of Exodus. It's a remarkable portion that has so many different facets. But one thing that really startles the modern mind is that it focuses a lot on the clothes we wear as religious expression. When we think about all the world's religions, so many faith traditions have clothing that is symbolic, that helps us live in a more mindful and a more values-based way.

So the portion focuses on the garments of the ancient priest. The ancient servants of the Holy One who had to wear very, very distinctive clothing. Remarkably, Aharon, Aaron, the High Priest, he wore a very special breast plate. And the text tells us that on his heart, he is to carry the names of Israel, of the people. What a powerful teaching, that wherever he would be serving the Holy One it wouldn't just be his own clothing, his own thoughts. But to be reminded of those he serves and those who came before him.

I think about the clothing I put on when I pray. I wear a prayer shawl, a tallit. And there are many different tallitot that you can buy in the world. Some are very ornate and beautiful. Some very simple. I wear around me a tallit that I bought in a refugee camp in the middle of Africa.

I was traveling, visiting, and witnessing the people of Darfur, those who survived the genocide. And as we were driving along there was a young boy with a whole shop filled with scarves and cloth. And I bought one I thought was a very simple piece of purple cloth. And my colleagues there with me said, “Why are you stopping to buy this”-- we call it in Yiddish--a “…shmata. It's just a, it's just a cloth.” I said “No, it's a tallis.” They said, “What you're talking about? It's not a tallis. We're in the middle of Africa. We're in the midst of seeing some of the most painful things that human beings have ever witnessed. Why are you buying this?” I said, “When I get home, it will become a tallit.”

And when I got home, my daughter Sarah and I, we tied the ritual fringes on to each of the four corners so that when I pray, I'm not just in my home or my synagogue. I'm not just in my own thoughts. But I literally wrap myself in the four corners of the earth. And I'm reminded of those children that we met in those refugee camps. I'm reminded of my responsibilities to care for not just my own family, for all of God's children.

I think also of the garments many of us wear that remind us of family members who have passed. I have a tie clip that I inherited from my father. A blessed memory. I actually don't wear tie clips. But I love to put on his tie clip. When I wear a tie at a formal occasion, it's a way of carrying over my heart not just the name, the initials of my father, but the teachings and the love.

So I think of those of us who will get ready to pray and wear garments that have symbolic meaning. Garments that remind us of not only why we do the rituals but how the rituals can change us. So as we get dressed, sometimes we worry about this doesn't go with that or this isn't very stylish. And I know that those are concerns.

But T’tzaveh reminds us that the clothing we wear in service of the rituals we perform, in the hopes of the lives that we lead, that is holy, holy business. So I hope that you have some garment that reminds you of an important teacher. I hope that each of us can find a way to carry over our hearts the names, the values, the teachings, and the love of those who came before us. In the case of my Darfur tallis, let it be also a reminder that we literally are interconnected all throughout the world. And the four corners of my garment are the four corners of the earth. And I carry those names and those responsibilities.

Join in the ritual of making meaning. It happened in the Book of Exodus. It happened in the ancient praying place. It happened with our ancestor Aaron. It can happen for each of us. Let us lead with our hearts.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. Between podcasts, you can visit us to learn more not just about Torah but about all aspects of Reform Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Visit www.URJ.org to learn more. L’hitraot. We'll see you next week.