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What Ever Happened to My Bell Bottoms?

We have all been coached. Whether meeting someone for the first time or preparing for an interview, if you want to make a great first impression, “dress for success!” There is no doubt about it. It would be prudent to give this advice due consideration.

In our contemporary society, the fashion business is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Madison Avenue does pretty good as well marketing and promoting the clothes we wear. Even with full closets, people are induced to buy the latest fashion, even if they don’t like “the look.”

 In the good old days of the late 60’s early 70’s. I had a hard time finding pants to wear. All the pants being manufactured were “flared” or “bell-bottomed.” Well, I’m what they used to call “square.” I am a straight leg pants guy. It was very hard to find them, but there was always the choice to be “in” or “out.” I remember the 1964 song, “I’m In with the In Crowd,” made popular by Dobie Gray and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.  I was stuck. If I wanted to buy a new pair of pants, I had no choice but to be “in.”

I am personally glad that fad is over; but that is the way with dress. Somebody made a ton of money. Out of style today, don’t worry. Keep the clothes long enough and the style will return. But we don’t do that. Perfectly good clothes are discarded simply because they are outdated, or in my case, never wanted to begin with. I gave many good, unused, bell-bottomed trousers to Good Will.

Aside from the practical concern for a wardrobe, dress expresses a lot about how we think about ourselves, our psychology. People use their attire to project a public image not because they have nothing to wear. Albert Einstein was often pictured slightly unshaven, with somewhat long and disheveled hair. He was known for not always wearing matching or well-fitting clothes. The “beatniks” of the 50’s who morphed into the “hippies” of the 60’s also looked that way. The “beatniks” and “hippies,” however, went out of their way to have that look. They were chasing an image.  They were trying to project the image that they really weren’t interested in dress. To accomplish their goal, they purposely dressed in a way that would portray that image. They were using dress as a statement of rebellion or counterculture against what they considered “the establishment.” Their dress was a forced, conscious, self-imposed look. Einstein’s dress was natural; looks, style or fashion simply didn’t register in his mind.

The expression, “clothes make the man,” hides a serious internal flaw if the person, through his or her dress, is trying to create, or project an image to others. This use of dress in this way takes many forms. It can, for instance, be the cause for why a person chooses to dress in a way that evokes a religious image. The true measure of religiosity is not made by external garb but rather by how someone deals privately in business or when alone, filling out their IRS return.

What does Judaism say about dress? A person is given leeway and allowed to dress fashionably with individual style, provided it is with modesty. A person representing Torah should not go out with stained or torn clothing, notwithstanding that today, torn designer jeans can cost quite a few shekels. In short, our external appearance, be it hairstyle or dress, should not be something odd, or that calls negative attention to a person, which in turn casts a negative impression of Jews or Judaism.

We can now understand why in this week’s Torah portion, the parsha describes the 4 special clothes worn by the ordinary kohanim and the 8 special garments worn by the Kohen Gadol, while performing their service inside the Temple. If any part of the Temple service was performed by a kohen or Kohen Gadol, while dressed in his ordinary clothes, the performance was disqualified. In the service of God, all projections of human personality are prohibited.

To accomplish this requirement, the kohen had to physically remove any outward vestige of his personality. Before taking part in any aspect of the Temple service, he took of his regular clothes and donned  his Temple work clothes.  These 4 garments were simple white tunics, the same uniform worn by every other Koen working in the Temple that day. The kohen had to demonstrate that the real personality of a person is found in his or her soul, “the image of God.,” not by the clothes being worn. This was true as well for the Kohen Gadol, except he had 4 additional pieces of apparel worn to remind him of his special responsibility for all of Israel when acting in his capacity as Kohen Gadol.

The Talmud (Taanit 11b and Avodah Zarah 34a) asks about Moses. A student asked Mar Ukvah, “Did Moshe wear the special clothes of the Kohen Gadol during the week of inauguration of the Kohanim into their service?” Afterall, he was teaching the kohanim what to do. Moshe’s service  had to be done precisely with all the requirements. “Mar Ukvah didn’t know so he asked his teacher. His teacher told him; Moshe wore only one white tunic.”

What is the point of this Talmudic dialogue? Moshe too could not display any personality in his service to God. Moshe was qualitatively unique. His internal make up was intrinsically devoid of any psychological attachment to the self. His internal makeup was completely directed to helping the nation of Israel. “Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth… Not so my servant Moses. In My entire house he is the trusted one.”  (Bamidbar/Numbers, 12:3 and 7) It never entered Moshe’s personality to project any self-serving image. For Moshe, one simple white garment was sufficient for his Temple service to be complete.

While we may not attain the perfected level of Moshe, we can try to fulfill the words of the prophet, Micah. “It has been told you, man, what is good for you and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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