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The Kabbalah of Clothes

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

What are we communicating with our clothes?

For fashion fans, this week's Parsha features a detailed account of clothes worn by the Kohanim (priests) in the Holy Temple. Each garment was metaphysically designed for peak performance – from the gold plate across the forehead, down to the bells and pomegranates at the hem of the robe. (Don't ask about shoes; the Kohanim served barefoot!)

An entire Parsha dedicated to clothing?! Why do human beings need to wear clothes in the first place anyway?!

We all remember the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: They started out "naked and unashamed" (Genesis 2:25), but after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, "they became aware of their nakedness, and made themselves clothes" (Genesis 3:7).

Why the shift?

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin explains: Before eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve saw each other first and foremost as souls. They knew the soul is the essence of a human being, with the body serving merely as a protective covering. Since Adam and Eve were focused on the spiritual side, they weren't self-conscious about their bodies. However, after eating from the Tree, their spiritual level dropped and "their eyes opened" to a focus on the body. The body had now become a distraction from the soul and it needed to be covered. Hence the concept of clothes was born!

Undo Objectification

The Western world typically relates to others as physical beings. In characterizing someone, we typically describe their physical appearance – e.g. he's the tall guy, or she's the one with curly brown hair.

Yet the most important aspect of a person is the spiritual dimension: talents, hopes, dreams and fears. And we struggle to make that voice be heard. How do we feel when we're seen only for the outward appearance? Cheap, demeaned, and dehumanized.

In our society, women feel the burden of this most. They suffer the indignity of harassment and objectification. Madison Avenue has convinced the Western woman that she must be obsessed with weight, complexion, and fashion. The challenge to resist this peer pressure and media barrage is overwhelming. And it affects us all.

Which is why the Torah is so strict about dignified dress. It is essential that we deflect attention from superficial appearance, to enable others to see us as the real person that we are. Judaism does not ask us to dress in a way that is ugly. Rather, we should not draw undo attention to the body by being flamboyant or provocative.

For in fact, that which is more "precious" is generally hidden – not open, available and free for all.

Message of the Miniskirt

The following excerpt is from a small but excellent book called "Outside, Inside" by Gila Manolson. Not my words, but rather that of a female expert on feminine spirituality:

Woman will often attempt to win a relationship by semiconsciously playing to a man's tendency to regard her physically. This can spell disaster for a woman. Most tragically, a woman who accustoms herself to "getting" a man this way is going to internalize an increasingly shallow self-image, to the point where she may lose sight entirely of what she really has to offer. Furthermore, while her feelings in a consequent relationship may indeed deepen, there's no reason to expect that this will.

I once heard a story which clearly illustrates this. A woman named Judy was visiting her friend Laura, a bright type in her mid-twenties, who'd just passed the bar exam. Sifting through the clothes in Laura's closet, the two were trying to decide what she should wear to an interview with a prestigious law firm the next morning.

Judy pulled a miniskirt and matching tank-top from a hanger. "How about this?" she suggested.

Laura looked at her in disbelief. "Are you crazy!" she exclaimed. "Which credentials do you think I'm trying to sell myself on? I don't want a potential employer to view me as a body. I want to be taken seriously. I want to be appreciated for who I am!"

Judy responded, "But when you go out on a Saturday night, hoping to meet a man with whom you can have a genuine, deep relationship – a man who will appreciate you for who you are – this is what you wear!"

One of the most tragic and self-defeating behaviors people engage in is trying to attract a partner based on their outsides. But if we would just step back and clarify what we really want, we'd probably present ourselves very differently. Like Laura, we are neither shallow nor stupid. We have unwittingly accepted a social norm stemming from collective confusion about who we are supposed to be.

Telephone Projections

This week's Parsha describes the purpose of the Kohen's clothes for "kavod and tifferet," meaning honor and glory (Exodus 28:2). The Torah is teaching that the type of clothes we wear speaks volumes about our honor and glory as human beings, created in the image of God.

This is not an issue of men or women. It is rather an issue of human dignity. The Talmud, for example, says that any Torah scholar who goes out in public with a stain on his clothes is subject to divine retribution. Judaism takes a strict stand because clothes don't just cover, they also reveal the inner self.

Many years ago, I was hired to do telephone sales. For weeks I was showing up to work in casual attire. (I figured that's the advantage of telephone sales – the clients don't care what you're wearing!) But I began to notice that those most successful on the phone staff were coming to work every day in a business suit. So one day I decided to try it. Wearing a suit, I suddenly found myself speaking with more confidence, sitting up straight, and communicating in a more professional tone. On the other end of the phone, my clothes could not be seen, yet their presence was surely felt: My sales increased dramatically!

It is for this same reason that the Torah stipulates that when praying to God, we must be in a clean place and wearing nice clothes. It is true what they say: the clothes make the man. When we dress dignified, we are treated that way.

In other words, we need to feel good about ourselves… but that should not be what ultimately attracts others to us.

Garments of God

On a deeper level, the Kabbalists metaphorically apply the concept of clothing to God Himself. The Talmud, in discussing the issue of why God is not more obviously manifest in the world, explains "that God wears the world like a garment." Just as a garment covers a person, so too the physical world conceals God. The Hebrew word for "world" (olam) comes from the same root as "hidden" (ne'elam).

But as a garment covers, so too it reveals – by making others look more deeply inside. God dons the garment of the physical universe, to encourage us to use our free will to seek and reveal Him. Just like you can only see the Invisible Man when he's wearing a shirt, so too God becomes revealed by the garment He dons.

The gematria (numerical equivalent) of God's name "Elokim" is 86. "Hateva," which means nature, also equals 86. Maimonides writes that meditating on the wonders of nature is one primary way we get to know God.

(Of course, God's true essence remains hidden – we see only the garment, not God Himself. Which is why Maimonides suggests a more intimate way of knowing God – by performing His mitzvot.)

Revealing the Inner Self

The holiday of Purim, which is just a few weeks away, is when we dress up in costumes. At first glance, wearing costumes seems contrary to the concept of clothes as self-revelation. Aren't costumes a false reflection of our inner identities?

The truth, however, is that many people are confused about who they really are – and in effect wear a mask all year round. Therefore on Purim, we "drop our daily masks." The costumes we wear do not hide our true selves, but rather reveal an even deeper degree of self-image!

This also explains why on Purim we get drunk – as yet another way to let down our defenses. As the Talmud says, "Nichnas yayin, yatza sode"when the wine goes in, the secret comes out. ("Wine" and "secret" have the same gematria, 70.)

The lesson of this week's Parsha is that clothes have the power to communicate – and we need to be sensitive to exactly what messages we're sending out. Our spiritual health depends on it. Because the more dignified our clothes are, the more we become free to see ourselves in the pure light of our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons


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