Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Parshat Tetzaveh

“Clothes Make the Man”

Whenever I think of people I knew who dressed impeccably, I recall three of my favorite people. One was my maternal grandfather, a businessman who was firmly dedicated to religious observance, but who chose his clothing carefully and was proud of his collection of cufflinks, tie clips, and colorful suspenders.

The other was my predecessor in the pulpit of the synagogue I served in Baltimore. He was known for his elegant demeanor and dress, and I will always treasure the image of him entering the synagogue on the eve of the major Jewish festivals. He wore a gray rabbinic frock, a gray Homburg hat, and a gray tie with a splash of red in it.

I can never forget the 90-year-old woman philanthropist, who single-handedly financed a summer camp for those who were then called “the underprivileged,” where I served for several years as head counselor. She visited the camp daily, and walked from table to table making sure that the children she loved were well fed and happy. She always wore a dark blue or purple outfit, appropriate to her advanced age, with a fresh flower pinned to her blouse. The fact that it was an ordinary weekday, and that she was sure to have the dress soiled during her visit to the camp kitchen, did not prevent her from always looking her best.

It has been said that “clothes make the man”, and in these politically correct times we must hasten to add, “and clothes make the woman.” Our clothing makes a statement about us, and in the case of my grandfather, my predecessor, and the elderly philanthropist, that statement was all about dignity, a sense of self-worth, and, yes, respect for all those with whom they came into contact.

You may wonder, “What does Judaism have to say about clothing? Is there any spiritual significance to what a person wears?”

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), we discover that Judaism has a lot to say about clothing and that there is indeed great spiritual significance to what a person wears.

It is in this Parsha that we learn about the special garments which the Priests were to wear during their service in the Temple, and the very special garments which were assigned to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and to all subsequent High Priests throughout the history of the holy Temple.

These are the instructions which Moses received from the Almighty:

“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment… These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash…” (Exodus 28:2-4)

The design, the colors, and the materials for these vestments are described in exquisite detail, and that long description concludes with the verse, “They shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting… It shall be a law for all time for him and for his offspring to come.” (Exodus 28:43)

The message here is unambiguous: when one is engaged in the service of the Lord he or she must be dressed in a manner which befits that role, and which projects, if not the image of Majesty, then surely the image of pride and dignity. To the extent that all of us are engaged in the service of the Lord, in one way or another, in much of what we do, we must be mindful of our physical appearance, and we must dress in a manner which is dignified, which reinforces our sense of the important tasks that we are about, and which impresses upon others that we take their opinion of us into consideration, and care about the impression we make upon them.

It is no wonder then that the Talmud (Sabbath114a) severely condemns individuals in religious public positions who dress sloppily, and who thus project a lack of dignity. The “talmid chacham”, the rabbi or yeshiva student, “upon whose clothing a greasy stain is found” is castigated in extreme terms by our sages.

This year, the Sabbath during which we read the Torah portion of Tetzaveh is soon followed by the joyous festival of Purim. Immediately upon the conclusion of Shabbat we read the book of Esther, the Megilah. Interestingly, we find additional support for the importance of clothing in that very book.

The hero and heroine of the Megilah are of course Mordechai and Esther, and whereas we imagine that Esther, as a Queen, was certainly bedecked with the finest clothing, it is the clothing worn by Mordechai that is highlighted by the Megilah. We learn that Mordechai wore two starkly contrasting sets of clothing.

In the early chapters of the narrative, which describe the dire straits in which the Jews found themselves because of the wicked Haman’s genocidal decree, we read:

“When Mordechai learned all that had happened, Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, until he came in front of the palace gate; for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth.” (Esther 4:1-2)

How significant it is that Mordechai expressed his grief and concern by changing his clothing. If it is true that “clothes make the man”, then it is equally true that the clothing we wear gives voice to the emotions we feel and to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Mordechai’s clothing gave voice to his people’s pain.

Our sages suggest that it is precisely because he empathized so strongly with his brothers and sisters that he was ultimately privileged to don a different sort of clothing altogether. Hence, toward the end of the Megilah, when the evil decree is revoked and a new decree proclaimed, we read:

“Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. The city of Shushan rang with joyous cries.” (Esther 8:15)

When the Jewish people suffer, the very clothing which our leaders wear expresses our suffering. When the Jewish people celebrate their redemption, that redemption is embodied in the garments those leaders choose to wear.

The book of Esther is but one of the five books of the Bible to which the name Megilah applies. The word Megilah means a scroll, and there are five such scrolls within our holy Scriptures. Besides the book of Esther, they are: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Kohelet or Ecclesiastes. In this latter work we find the following “mitzvah”:

“Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy… Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment…” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8)

This verse is especially apt as we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim. We feast, eat our bread and drink our wine in gladness. But our clothes, the external manifestation of our human dignity, must always be “freshly washed” – or to translate the Hebrew literally, “always white”.

We must never sully our behavior, even in moments of great joy, by celebrating in an excessive and unbecoming manner. We are entitled, in celebration of the victories of the Jews in ancient Persia, to wear “royal robes of blue and white”, but we must wear them with the same dignity and humility with which Aaron and his offspring wore their sacred garments.

Yes, clothes make the man and the woman, but it is they who must make their clothes, and their demeanor, appropriate expressions of propriety and modesty. A lesson for Purim, certainly. But a lesson as well for the rest of the year.