Tzav: A Torah Guide to Fashion

When I was 15, my dad decided to take us kids back to the old house in the Idaho wilderness – where the character of my family had really been forged. What with the 10-hour drive through unimproved terrain, the high-risk canyon-side descent and all the rest, it wasn’t the kind of place you just drove straight to. You had to have a sort of basecamp. In this case, the basecamp was a town by the name of Grangeville, Idaho. Population: 3,187.

I got to Grangeville and, as 15-year-olds are wont to do, spent a little time with the kids of my parents’ friends. There are only two things I remember about my time with those kids. First, I lost my wallet in somebody’s truck. Second, I answered a question. But not just any question. You see, one of those kids asked me why Jews wear Kippot (kipas). And I told him, quite simply, that it was “to cover our horns.”

I then went into an extensive explanation of how, the more religious we were, the bigger our horns grew. This led to black hats and shtreimels. And, of course, I talked about how women only grew horns after they got married. He and his friends ate it all up.

My mother was, let’s say, less than impressed.

This all has a connection to this parsha, really. You see, this parsha – for me – is really about perspective. And a big part of that perspective has to do with clothing. In only the second verse of this reading, we get into clothing. Presumably, the Kohen has been wearing their high falutin’ garb while offering sacrifices. But this verse starts with the next step, moving the ashes off the altar. You might ask, what is the perfect gown for this occasion? The Torah gives us an answer:

מִדּוֹ בַד, וּמִכְנְסֵי-בַד

‘mido’ linen and shorts of linen.

Even weirder, at the beginning of the verse the text says the Kohen is to dress in these garments, and then at the end of the same verse it says he is to dress his flesh in them. It repeats itself (with the addition of the flesh). Then the Kohen is to change into “other clothes” and carry the ashes outside the camp and into a clean place.

You might think this change of clothes is just a practical manner – garbage disposal is dirty work. But they wear their fancy clothes to slaughter the animals and splash those animals’ blood on the altar. That is dirty work. The laundry bill at the Mishkan must have been something else again. I had a friend, an emergency Orthopedic surgeon, who kept having to buy new shoes because it was impossible to get the blood out. And without hydrogen peroxide or Oxi-Clean? Wow, that’s a serious challenge. Taking out the ashes is far less dirty. So, the source of this commandment isn’t practical.

Instead, this partial verse leaves us with a bunch of questions. What is up with the costume shift? Why repeat the command to dress? Why skip the fancy clothes? And why, in the first three verses that cover a Kohen’s actual job (as opposed to the previous Parsha which focuses on the individuals bringing offerings to the Kohanim) do we have such a focus on clothes?

I know a dvar Torah is supposed to answer all the questions it asks, but as I write this I suspect I’m not going to manage it. But two out of three, of whatever we end up with, it ain’t bad. Right?

 

In order to try to answer at least some of these questions, we have to talk about clothes themselves. Now, my relationship with clothing, growing up, was not complex. If you dressed well, then you were betraying some truer ideal. Ideas were being sacrificed on the altar of, well, window-dressing. This was doubly true if you tried to conform, or impress, in your choice of clothing. Fitting in was perhaps the greatest crime of all. Except for using couture to show off. I mean, that demonstrated your priorities were properly and totally messed up.

Sure, I didn’t want to look like an idiot (which by the way was a standard I almost entirely failed to meet), but I also didn’t want to look like I really cared. I didn’t want people to think I really cared. You know, I think a lot of people are probably just like that.

The point is, for years and years, I thought of clothing as the opposite of important. Then, about 10 years ago, I was trying to figure out the mitzvah of Tzitzit and I happened to come across a profile of a fashion executive. She was a Jewish woman and the profile basically opened with her statement that “nothing is more important than fashion.”

My first response was: “this person is all useless puffery. This woman has no idea what is really important, I’ll go read something else.”

But then the interviewer asked, “Why?”

I figured – between the interviewer’s question and the boldness of the executive’s statement, that I’d give it another sentence or two. The executive responded (and I paraphrase because I can’t find the actual article): “Because from birth until death, you are never more than a few meters from fabric.”

That blew me away. Aside from our bodies, nothing in our lives is more constant than fabric. Not even food. Heck, growing up, my family once spent a Shabbat in a nudist colony (our very first and last family vacation). But even that place was defined by clothes. The absence of fabric formed the very core of their identity. Clothing really matters. The question is: why?

 

I guess if you want to climb the mountain of understanding, you’ve got to start at the bottom. Clothing is practical. It keeps you warm, it can be protective. Years ago, my dad started wearing these really wide-brimmed cowboy hats. Like six-inch brims. I suppose most people thought it was just an ego thing. The real problem was, he used to walk into things and after a bad run of bashing his head repeatedly with increasingly ill effects, he changed how he dressed. The six-inch brims were an early warning system. A fundamentally practical piece of clothing. Like a MobilEye for your head.

We have all sorts of practical clothing in our lives. I used to wear (I apologize for the language) sh-tkickers (black workboots). On a basic level, they were there to kick sh-t. Ask me about the practical benefits of cleaning out a chicken coop in the winter vs. the summer. But not in shul. Or over lunch.

The thing is: those very practical clothes tend to morph into something else. They almost always become a statement of identity. My dad was a Jewish cowboy. People identified him with his giant hats. And I didn’t buy just any sh-tkickers. I got mine from the West Coast Boot Company, located only a few miles from where I grew up in the mountains outside Portland, Oregon. Wherever I went, those boots were a core of my identity. I even got married in them. Today I wear a white sun hat and I joke, kind of, that I’m a Levonah Chossid. I wear white, instead of black, because the good guys in an old western always wear white. Practicality has yielded to identity.

Just as in life, the Torah has purely practical clothes. The poor man who uses his clothes as collateral. The garment that’s used to cover Noach. The word used is simlah (which now means ‘dress’). But those clothes can also acquire another level of meaning. Yaacov tears his simlah in mourning. They become a statement of mourning. Yosef changes his clothes to come to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. They become a statement of position. Yosef gives changes of clothes to his brothers – they become statements of peace. Even in the Torah, simple clothes with no obvious meaning of their own, can easily morph into something far more important.

The next question is: what do they morph into. For me, the next level on our mountain of fabric would be how clothes can influence how others see us. Whether or not it is fair, if you wear a hoodie, it sends a message. If you dress like a Northwestern billionaire and walk into a Melbourne silver store, they’ll call the police (or at least, in personal experience, send you to the ‘silver plated’ section of the store). Others perceive us through our clothes. Yosef knows this, which is why he changes. He has to change for Pharaoh to take him seriously. He was, after all, a master of presentation.

Because of the side effects, or perhaps because of them, we often take special pride in this presentation. You might be a high-falutin’ socialite, but I still wear my sh-tkickers (or at least I did, until my wife sucked the last vestiges of my true self out of my being). So I’m proud of not being like you (or at least I was, back when I had pride).

At its extremes, this identity can undergo a fundamental transformation. Instead of accenting what is individual about, well, an individual, they begin to entirely define that individual in terms of some greater function. A simple badge transforms a cop in street clothes into something else entirely. A patch of yellow fabric transforms a civilian into a Ukrainian volunteer fighter. Your eye ignores almost everything else, and you focus on this identifying piece of clothing. Then suddenly, a person represents law, or freedom, or healing.

Before long, that little patch merges with the practical aspects of the clothing. Body armor, scrubs, shoulder straps. Just think of Miss Ukraine 2014, recasting herself as a soldier.  

This sort of clothing states that you are a part of something more important than the individual. That service is a core of your identity. This is why Supreme Court Justices the world over wear robes. However much they may actually serve the law, they are stating that they are servants of the law. This designation has a word in the Chumash: Beged. A widow wears not a simlah, but begadim. A priest does the same. Even a prostitute (in the story of Tamar) has designating clothing.

If you really want to get messed up, consider this: in order to designate herself as a prostitute, Tamar wears a face-covering veil. One needs only watch some old Bond movies to realize this can broadcast a certain message. But not that much earlier in the chumash, Rivka sees Yitzchak and covers her face with a veil. Yitzchak was striving for physical connection (he loved Esav for his food, he was the only of the forefathers to be a farmer, and he was the only one to ‘sport’ with his wife). So, when Rivka covered her face with a veil was she being modest? Was she trying to limit his physical drive? Or was she actually trying to leverage his physical desires in order to seal the deal.

What does this say about our tradition of women wearing a veil at their weddings?

Anyway, back on track, all of these things designate a person as being a certain kind of person. Even Tamar was saying she served a higher purpose. Prostitutes were called Kadeishim – Holies. Not a Jewish thing, but a common enough thing in those times. Just read The Da Vinci Code.

The real line that seals this is at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim. The situation is his: a man has purchased a wife for himself (desperate times and all that, check out the sale of girls in Afghanistan in return for food). He can’t then sell her בְּבִגְדוֹ-בָהּ. That’s the reason given. He has to allow her to be redeemed. We translate that as “because he dealt deceitfully with her.” But the word ‘because’ isn’t there, so why not something a little more straightforward: “he designated her.” She was designated, quite possibly through clothing, to be his wife. So we translate the phrase as, “he can’t sell her, he designated her.”

We see all sorts of designations today. Yes, there are the professional designations. But there are others as well. A chossid’s kapota – stating service to Hashem. A National Zionist Jew’s knit kipa – stating service to G-d and State (by the way, I only wear one because I haven’t invented my own head covering yet). A politician’s suit. These informal designations are part of what made President Zelensky’s transformation so effective. He morphed from administrator in service of the state to soldier in service of the state. And trust me, as a highly accomplished entertainer and actor who got his position after being the main character on a show called Servant of the People, he knew exactly what he was doing.

The thing is: others’ their perception of you is fundamentally altered by the clothes you wear. At the base level, you become part of a group. Ideally, though, you become a part of something greater and more important. Of course, sometimes you are just hated. A kapota can draw the ire of other Jews, or other people. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote about the immediate effect of these coats on his perception of Jews.

Once, when passing through the inner City, I suddenly encountered a phenomenon in a long caftan and wearing black side-locks. My first thought was: Is this a Jew? … I watched the man stealthily and cautiously; but the longer I gazed at the strange countenance and examined it feature by feature, the more the question shaped itself in my brain: Is this a German?… The odor of those people in caftans often used to make me feel ill.

A kipa, or even a suit, can have a similar effect (are you part of the 1%?). This is why I often don’t wear a kipa in Europe. We call it stealth mode. When the garment means something to other people, something they hate, you hide your uniform. You hide your uniform of service. Or you explain it away in practical terms – you know, hiding yours horns and all that.

But, again, ideally… ideally… your uniform identifies you are a servant to something greater than yourself.

 

The thing is, clothes can do even more than that. I used to work at Nike. When I first got the job, I biked to work in basically the cheapest workout clothes I could buy. Working at Nike, I had to change brands. So, I went out an bought a bunch of Nike clothes. I still have them – including my Live Strong shirt (when people ask why I still wear it, even after Lance Armstrong was disgraced, I explain that my Jewish soul couldn’t resist the discount). The thing is, the clothes weren’t just branded. They were better. So, I began to have pride not in what they said about me, but what they said to me. I wasn’t just representing something. I wasn’t just representing Nike, I was, just a little bit, being Nike. Nike’s whole advertising world is built on this. Just Do It is about a way of life. Not something people see when they look at you wearing Nike clothes, but something you see in yourself when you wear them. Wearing their clothes shifts from being a reflection of you are into becoming something that redefines you.

To somebody who grew up thinking of clothes as a betrayal of Truth, it is mind blowing. Tzitzit don’t designate you, they define you. They change the person wearing them, not just how that person is perceived.

In fact, this is the true ideal. A chossid should be made into a servant of G-d by their Kapota. A judge should be made into a servant of the Law by their robes. A cop should be imbued with a sense of service to society by their uniform. There’s the possibility of a virtuous circle. Clothes can define how people see those who wear them. And the people who wear them can begin to see themselves through those ideals.

This isn’t such a common idea nowadays. More and more people see the only valuable service as service to individuality itself. There is nothing higher. Businesses have moved away from suits. Politicians try to dress down (my eyes still burn with the image of Al Gore in short shorts). The value of this sort of conformity – something I despised growing up – is being lost. The process has been going on for hundreds of years, at least. The Protestant move against priests was in part a move against the idea that you needed special clothes (and a special position) to interface with G-d.

The thing is, despite all the rules about clothing for Kohanim, there is still a very contrary example in the Torah. Moshe, a leader who had no title in the Chumash itself, also had no particular clothes. He had a staff. He wore a veil to cover his face from the rays of G-dliness after the sin of the calf. But he didn’t have a uniform. When Aaron’s son took over as Kohen HaGadol, he just put on Aaron’s clothes. The position was the clothes. But when Moshe was preparing to transfer power, he transferred some of his praise. It wasn’t about clothes at all. In a way, when Hashem says Moshe is the only man who speaks with G-d “face-to-face” you can see it as a commentary on clothing. Moshe’s clothes don’t really matter. He has a direct connection to G-d. His is the ideal of my childhood. He is why, even when I wore a black hat, there was always something a little wrong with it (I wore Beaver and woven silk hats, but never Rabbit!).

Moshe wasn’t defined by his clothes. His individuality defined him, and no clothes (and no title) were necessary to designate his role. He was, at the very end, a Man of G-d. And that required no window dressing. None at all.

 

So, what is the ideal? Should we all dress in identical clothes that speak to our humility and dedication to something other than nice threads? Should we all strive for individuality. Should we ignore clothing, beyond some practical application.

 

Well (and I have no idea if this is going to work) let’s go back to questions that opened this discussion.

But in reverse order.

  1. Why, in the first three verses that cover a Kohen’s actual job do we have such a focus on clothes?

A possible answer? Because clothing defines the Kohen. The Kohenim just aren’t able to function in their jobs without their clothes (skip the nudist jokes, please).

 

  1. What is up with the costume shift?

Baad (linen) represents the greatest in human effort. Especially when you consider the laundry bill. When you dress in Baad, you are making a statiement of human effort. You aren’t representing the G-dly. In some way, you are giving human honor to the ashes you are handling.

 

  1. Why skip the fancy clothes?

Well, that human honor is important. In the Torah reading of Vayikra, where the offerings are introduced, only one of the offerings is called Holy. The one that is eaten in its entirety. Everything else has the taint of waste, from a human perspective. Living animals are slaughtered, flour is burned. There is great loss. The ‘Adam’, the man, the ordinary Everyman, who brings an offering in Vayikra can’t appreciate the holiness. The Kohen’s fancy clothes don’t help with that. In many ways, they represent the divine and the distant. But by showing human honor to the ashes, the simple leftovers of the offerings, the Kohen is demonstrating that even the physical remnants of the offerings deserve honor. Later, those ashes are covered with purple – the color of honor. By putting on the mantle of human effort, these clothes form the first step in enabling the Kohen to see and appreciate the holiness of the offerings themselves. They can begin to see past the destruction, and into the remarkable spiritual creation the offerings effected.

 

4. Why repeat the command to dress?

Perhaps because the clothes serve two roles – just as their seem to be two articles of clothing.

Breaking up the verse we read at the beginning we can see:

“And the Kohen shall put on his linen meed.”

The word meed is used in the evil report of the spies to describe the people of the land: they have great Middot.  It describes their character. The Kohen is putting on the character of linen. He is embracing the character of human effort.

“and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh”

The practical aspects – and the covering of one’s flesh in the presence of G-d – is secondary. The definitional role of the clothing comes first. But it cannot stand alone.

The clothes transform the Kohen, enabling them to lift up the offerings from a human perspective. And they ultimately enable the Kohen to see the offering themselves as Holy. And so many of those same offerings that were not designated as Holy in Vayikra are designated as Holy in Tzav.

 

Perhaps this tell us how we should dress?

When we allow clothes to transform us, to lift us up and make us a part of some greater, then we should wear them. Our own example, while wearing those clothes, can reinforce the most positive parts of their meaning and redefine us. Moshe didn’t need clothes to lift him up. But many of us do. We should allow our clothes to do exactly that.

But what if we won’t allow those same clothes to redefine us? What if we are going to use them only to hide who we really are. In that case, we must not wear them. The crooked lawman disgraces the badge – and all who wear it. The President of a Tin Pot Dictatorship, with a chest festooned with medals, brings dishonor to his nation.

Yes, clothes can cover weakness or ervat. But when they go beyond that, when they try to redefine us, then we shouldn’t abuse them.

 

I, for one, will continue to wear my white hat. Sure, it protects me from the sun. And sure, it hides my horns. But, at least to me, it also represents an ideal I’d like to fulfill. An ideal of purity and honesty – represented in the white. If I wear my white hat with this ideal in mind, then it can, in fact, lift me up.

And, yeah, I know: few other people wear a white hat for these reasons. In this way, it represents a touch of individuality. I like to think it captures a touch of the idea that our greatest life is only realized when we reach our own, individual, potential.

As much as the path of Aaron can lift us up, Moshe remains the greatest example of a Man of G-d.

And all of us can learn from each of their examples.

 

One last note before I close: the only reason I dress as well as I do today is because of my wife Rebecca. It is a constant struggle. Sometimes, she envisions me as the Ryan Gosling of Joseph Cox’s – with threads that speak to sophistication and culture. Then again, she knows who I really am. While she eventually overcame the sh-tkickers, she still knows there are limits – at least in my case – to what I’ll let my clothes say about me.

Oh, and I know a lot of the humor and stories are about me. There’s a reason for this too and it isn’t conceit. The fact is, I rarely come up with funny original material. But, as some famous Supreme Court Justice once said, I can know humor when I see it. I’ve seen some very entertaining things. Plus, nobody is ever insulted when you’re laughing at yourself. If you enjoy the stories – or want to know more about the nudist colony – check out my book: A Multi Colored Coat. It’s on Amazon.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

  1. Susan Quinn says:

    As always, your dvar Torah brings a unique take on the teaching. Your humor could take away from your message, but instead it brings home the message of another way we can connect with Hashem. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.