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  • Bob Karasov

Clothes make the (sic) Man

Dvar Torah Pekudei

When I started medical school at the Mayo clinic in the late 1970’s we were told the story of a second-year med student, a product of the 1960’s with long hair and casual clothes , who was learning how to see patients. After taking the history, he stepped out of the room so the patient could put on a gown. But the patient refused to come out of the dressing room until they could see someone who looked like a real doctor.

The message we were being given was clear. Doctors need to look and dress a certain way. Clothes matter.

According to an article I read by Jacob Olesen the color of clothes you wear tell people about your personality and you need to be careful what you wear to job interviews. Red says you are an extrovert with passion and energy. Green says you are environmentally friendly and have a good sense of balance. Purple clothes show great love for art, creativity and imagination. you get the idea.

Clothes also have symbolic value and represent traditions: Who wears a Vikings or Gopher jersey to watch a game? Perhaps the biblical book with the most examples of the symbolism of clothes is Megillat Esther. For example: When Esther hears that the Jews are going to be destroyed, her first concern is how Mordecai is dressed since he has on sackcloth and ashes. When the king wants to reward Mordecai for saving his life, he dresses him in the royal clothes. And Mordecai’s final rise to fame at the end is noted by the beautiful clothes he wears.

The Torah portions over the past month, have focused on the building of the Tabernacle and on the clothes worn by the priests when they executed their duties in the sacrificial system. It is easy to get bogged down in all the details and not appreciate what was really gong on and why, to paraphrase my medical school teacher, what the priests wore mattered.

A few weeks ago, we read in parsha Tezaveh that the clothes were L Kavod u le Tiferet. For glory (or honor) and splendor. According to Rambam they were to honor the priests by dressing them like royalty. According to Sforno to honor God and lend splendor to the priest so he would be revered by the tribes.

We can try to understand the clothes on two levels, macro and micro. The sacrificial cult was pageantry and meant to emotionally effect the people watching. But each item of clothing also had an intrinsic specific meaning. Let’s dig deeper in each of these.

Religious rituals are meant to be emotionally provocative and appeal to the senses which increases likelihood they will be remembered and motivate people to transmit them to others. They are supposed to lead to a heightened state of consciousness and a connection with God and their higher selves. They assist the individual to find his/her place in the universe and to understand and accept his/his part in the scheme of things; for example, the clothes helped control the community and to respect the officiants. So the clothes were for the priests the people and for God.

Traditions and rituals form a social glue that binds groups within a society, and help establish shared, standard behavior that keeps society running on an even kilter. Many rituals are timeless and unite people across many generations.

Picture the High priest decked out in these beautiful clothes with the elaborate rituals surrounding the sacrifices and one can imagine the emotional effect. Today, when we have so much access to sensory experiences, we need events like the opening ceremony of the Olympics to recapture the effect.

The clothes also had meaning on a micro level. Just like a pro athlete is not allowed to play if they aren’t wearing the right clothes and gear, we learn in (BT Zevachim 17:B). "While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them” Conducting the service without these garments would render the priests the same as those who are not descendants of Aaron - all of whom are unfit for service in the Temple. ​Priest could be put to death for officiating without the proper clothing. These rules helped prevent the priests from becoming too full of themselves and their own importance. Priest officiated barefoot which also may have promoted humility.

The garments had to be made precisely by people who were wise hearted and filled with the spirit of wisdom. (Exodus 28:1-4) Apparently, the garments were so impressive that in Talmud Yoma it says that when King Ahasuerus made a feast for his advisors and officers and sought to impress them with his greatness, he donned the uniform of the High Priest which he owned after the destruction of the first Temple. Another important quality of the priestly garments is that their very presence, worn by the priests during the Temple service, served to atone for the sins of Israel. In BT Zevachim 88:B it says that just as the sacrifices facilitate an atonement for sin, so do the priestly garments

  1. The tunic, which covers most of the priest's body, atones for killing.

  2. The pants atone for sexual transgressions.

  3. The turban, worn on the head, atone for haughtiness.

  4. The belt, wound about the body and worn over the heart, atones for "sins of the heart" - improper thoughts.

  5. The breastplate atones for errors in judgment.

  6. The ephod atones for idolatry.

  7. The bells at the bottom of the robe atones for evil speech.

  8. The High Priest's crown atones for arrogance.

The garments were not allowed to be soiled, stained, or ripped and had to fit perfectly. This means they had to be made specially for each priest and there were hundreds of priests each coming in shifts during the year. The garments were never washed. When they got dirty, they were shredded and used to fulfill another mitzvah. For example: The tunics were used to make wicks for the menorah, and the belts and pants became wicks for the oil lamps of the Festival of the Water Libation. When the High Priest's uniform became unusable through wear and tear, it was not destroyed, but hidden away so that no other man could ever wear it. I read a fascinating Dvar Torah by Ellen Dannin (RRC) that discussed a completely different way to look at the garments. She wrote that “the placement of the items of clothing corresponds with the system of chakras found in eastern religious mysticism. The chakras are points of power found at the crown of the head, forehead (the third eye), throat, heart, solar plexus, groin, and at the base of the spine (root chakra). Each of these is supposed to have different effects and to be associated with different colors and symbols”. This helped me understand why there is so much emphasis on color in the descriptions of the clothes and Mishkan.

“The precious stones that adorned the High Priest also had deeper meaning. Today we have birth stones that are nothing more than interesting symbols, but at one time the stones had far greater importance. Even now some people associate precious stones with healing and different sorts of power. Again, more is going on than mere adornment.

Third, notice that on the ephod (breastplate), the names of the sons of Jacob/Israel are inscribed—six sons on one side on one lapis lazuli stone and the other six on the other side on a lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli is a stone associated with the astrological sign Libra—the balance.

Notice also the discussion of the “breast piece of decision” where there are twelve precious stones, corresponding to the twelve sons, twelve months, and perhaps to the twelve signs of astrology. Inside is the urim and tummim, which are used for divination. And all this is on the heart chakra.

There are many other details, most of which correspond to various mystic systems, and some of which do not. But there can be no doubt that these garments are more than luxurious. They are certainly for dignity and adornment (kavod and tiferet), but they are far more. They are holy clothes, and they reflect many meanings of kavod, a word that means weightiness, dignity, and honor—and whose root is related to the word for a part of the body—the liver, the heaviest organ in the body. Every detail of these clothes is resonant with that complexity of meaning”.

So, the priestly garments worn together had a macro significance as part of a pageantry that evoked an emotional reaction in the community and elevated them to a higher level, helping them connect with God and maintain the stability of the community. And the individual garments had a micro significance each with their own deeper spiritual and mystical meanings.

What are we to take away from all of this? Is there a role in our lives for special clothing? Rituals? Pageantry? Does how we dress influence us in deeper ways?

When I was growing up, people got much more dressed up for shul, especially on the high holidays but even on a regular Shabbat. We got dressed up for airplane flights since they were so special. Wearing special clothes elevated the experience. We have moved away from those days, but I suspect something has been lost. Some of the specialness of activities is lost.

What other rituals do we each have in our daily lives? Morning minyan has become an important ritual in my life. It allows me time to reflect each AM. I think about what I am grateful for, what 3 good things happened to me the day before, what I learned and what I could have done better the previous day.

Encircling my head and body in my tallit I try to imagine being protected and wrapping my tefillin I try to picture myself preparing to meet the day as a warrior.

Family rituals like daily dinners around the table have been shown to strengthen family bonding, transmit family values and beliefs, promote a child's positive emotional development and help children cope by providing them with a trusted foundation of stability.

Clothing rituals like wearing a Kittel on the High Holidays and Pesach, men’s choice of kippot and head coverings for women, my special Randy Moss Vikings Jersey and Mark Glotter’s special duchening socks all add meaning to our lives and express who we are and what we value.

I encourage you think about any clothing that has special meaning for you and think about ways to incorporate more ritual into your life. Maybe at kiddush you can share with each other what special family rituals you have.

As we think about ancient rituals compared to how we live our lives today I want to close by quoting the final paragraph from an article by Baruch J. Schwartz who is professor of Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Many modern Jews seem inclined to view the statutory prayer that eventually replaced the “royal treatment of God in His earthly abode” as a step away from what they see as the crude anthroporphism of early times, and a step in the direction of more spiritualized worship. And yet, the notion of serving God by speaking to Him, in sounds forming human language, calling Him our “father” and “king,” addressing to Him words of praise and petition, words that He is imagined to “hear” as if by some auditory means, by which He is thought somehow to be moved or affected and to which it is hoped that He may react favorably – is this any less anthropomorphic than the silent tribute and supplication offered by means of the High Priest’s garments? Whether verbally or dramatically, to worship God apparently involves making Him (!) accessible, imaginable, familiar – in ancient times as in our own”.

Shabbat Shalom.

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