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Of Fabric And Fabrication

Of Fabric And Fabrication

Shabbat candles: 5:20 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 27:20-30:10;
Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: I Samuel 15:1-34
Havdalah: 6:20 p.m. (Purim)

Arguably the most fashion-conscious of all Torah readings, Tetzaveh deals with the designing of the Kohen’s priestly garments and the investiture of Aaron and his sons. Scripture records that those eight items of clothing were meant to express the honor and glory (Kavod and Tiferet) of the Kohen. The Midrash notes that the exact same words are used to describe the exhibitionism of King Ahasuerosh in the Book of Esther, and concludes that Ahasuerosh dressed himself in the priestly costume for the sake of his excessive bash. This comment opens a window on the two-edged sword that fashion wields in the Bible and the Midrash. From the dawn of history, clothes have both made and unmade the man.

The first real clothes mentioned in the Bible were the “tunics of hide” made by God for Adam and Eve after the sin. The word for tunic — ketonet — not coincidentally, is the same word as for one of the priestly garments, as well as the coat Joseph famously wore. Were these clothes meant to elevate humanity above the animal world or merely to conceal their newfound nakedness? Perhaps the choice was theirs. The Midrash traces the passage of those garments from Adam down to Nimrod, and then Esau, the two hunters of the Bible. The garments are seen as the source of their hunting prowess, for when they wore them, unsuspecting animals came right up to them, having never heard of the concept of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In other words, Esau and Nimrod used the garments of Adam and Eve not to transcend their common origins with the animal kingdom, but to revert back to that world in order to exploit it.

In a most ambiguous turn of events, Jacob retrieves these garments from Esau, only to use them to deceive Isaac, and take his brother’s blessing. In one sense, he had become the same hunter as his brother, wielding the same fashion accessory, only now, his father is his prey. Yet from another angle, he rescued the garments to serve his father and posterity, rather than himself. The imagery that plays around Jacob’s deed evokes the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, entering the innermost chamber to make the offering.

And when Jacob makes his favorite son, Joseph, the ketonet passim, was that coat a symbol of family priesthood and leadership, or of favoritism? Surely Joseph, at first, succumbs to the lures of its darker potential, but the moment he is sold  coincides with his being stripped of his coat and what it had hitherto represented. When he is later re-dressed, this time by Pharaoh in royal garments, he has matured enough to use clothing as the outer expression of inner strength.

Which, of course, leads us to Mordechai and Purim. The same fabrics described in the opening scene of Ahasuerosh’s obscene party return at the end to describe the royal outfit that Mordechai wears when he becomes viceroy. Clothes conceal and demean, but they can also elevate and ennoble. At their best, they can give accurate expression to the inner purity of the Kohen in his attempt to transcend both beast and human to reach for the Divine.

Yet today’s truth and honesty can be tomorrow’s cliche. The very garments used by the High Priest for the Yom Kippur service one year must be put aside and may not be worn the following year. For the Kohen can find his own holy voice by emulating the Josephs and Mordechais of yore, but it must be his own voice and it must be re-examined regularly to make sure that he is not merely following a fashion trend — even his own.

Chasidic thought teaches that thought, speech and deed are the garments of the soul. It is not just our clothes that can reveal or conceal us. The value of tzniut (modesty) neither begins nor ends with dress codes. Our words can gently welcome others or harshly ward them off; old words, unrefreshed, can be off-putting. Our actions, even if originally positive, can come to embody the opposite of our values. A kiddush, once an occasion for inclusiveness and conviviality, can be transformed into an exclusive event or one that fosters crass competition and vulgar excess.

What sort of fashion statement are we making with the garments of honor and glory that have been passed down to us though so many different hands? Do they become on us priestly vestments or hunter’s snare? This Purim, as we struggle with the perennial issues of over-the-top drinking, will they make or unmake us? And this year, in a world that bares more and more online, will they reveal or conceal us? 

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves a Rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and teaches at the SAR Academy in Riverdale. His recent book is “Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter.”

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