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Clothes for All Occasions

“Image is everything!” “Make a great first appearance!” “Dress for success!” These are all clichés we have heard numerous times from our parents, friends, teachers, and advisors whether going for a job interview or a college visitation. We consider it important to dress “in style.” We seek to project a certain persona via our clothing, the way we wish to be perceived by others. At a power lunch, it may important to project a “smart” or “sharp” appearance, one that commands attention. On other occasions, we may want a “dress down” look. If the invitation says “black tie” affair, then we know we may feel out of place showing up at the event wearing jeans and sneakers.

On the other hand, at times our behavior or attitude is affected by clothing. Try swimming in a three-piece suit or playing ice hockey sporting only a bathing suit. Certain professions require the wearing of specific apparel to enable more efficient job performance, for safety and protection, or so others will take notice of what is going on. Body tight clothes may encumber our firefighters. Military personnel and those in law enforcement wear very distinctive uniforms specifically designed for protection as well as to “stand out” in a crowd.

Uniforms also serve to remind both the wearer and the observer of the identity of the profession and the professional, such as a sports jersey with a number on the back. Uniforms can serve to increase the awareness of the seriousness in the work being done. Surgical dress worn by doctors and nurses in an operating room or the robe worn by a judge in the courtroom are just two common examples.

This week’s Torah reading, Tetzaveh, spends a great deal of time describing the details of the priestly clothes, בגדי כהונה. All priests in the Temple wore a four garment vestment. The High Priest, “Kohen Gadol,” was adorned in an eight-piece outfit. No matter how dignified were his ordinary clothing, it was not permitted for any priest to officiate in the Temple without wearing the designated priestly clothes. To do so was a grave offense. Any procedure done by a Kohen in the Temple service would be invalidated if performed without donning his special uniform.

We can understand the need for a “dress code” for such a significant and serious activity. What needs explanation is the Torah’s prescription and insistence on exact materials, measurements and design in the priestly clothes to the exclusion of any personal taste by the individual Kohen.

On reflection, we can learn something important from the Torah’s insistence on the sanctity and specialness of the priestly garments. As mentioned above our clothes serve some practical and functional purpose or serve to mask or hide our inner self. We spend a lot of money and place a lot of energy to accomplish one or both of those goals.

Before coming into the Temple to serve in his official capacity, the Kohain had to remove his personal clothing which represents something about him, his superficial social image. In the service of God, all that can be reflected is God. The garments designed were not of the Kohain’s doing. That would deflect from the purpose of service in the Temple, to bring people to recognize God. The garments of the priest were designed to reflect the true essence of man, the soul of man, created, “in His image.” The Torah states, “You shall make garments of holiness…for honor and glory.” My friend and teacher, Rabbi Richard Mann, once remarked that God permits us to perform His service in the Temple on the condition that we abandon all forms of vanity. In service to God, we must only focus on that which is true and eternal.

If this idea was necessary to be taught, by the lesson of the priestly garments, to generations of old, how much more so is this lesson needed in today’s world where we face constant societal pressures for style and fashion? While it is human nature to be preoccupied with our looks and to be drawn after external appearances, we must constantly remind ourselves that this is not the domain of real human perfection. Our essence as human beings is not advanced one iota by catering to any pull or desire stemming from this source. The only appearance we should be concerned about and consider is the external reflection every human being projects created “in the image of God.” When we look at another person and then dwell on that idea, how different would we treat each other?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kapla