Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
This Shabbat, we will read Parshat Tetzaveh in our synagogues, and also remove another Torah scroll from the ark, from which we will read an excerpt containing the verses, “Zachor (remember) what Amalek did to you…you shall not forget!” [Deut. 25:17-19]. This is why this Shabbat is named “Shabbat Zachor” – and it is always read just before the holiday of Purim, which we will celebrate at the end of the coming week.
Presumably, the portion of the week should not be connected in any way to the holidays, since these are two distinct axes. The weekly portions are read in the order of the Torah, while the dates of the festivals are determined differently. Still, we must not overlook the fact that these two events occur in close proximity, not to mention that on most years, we read Parshat Tetzaveh just before celebrating the Purim festival.
A closer look at this week’s reading reveals that it features a description of the priestly garments worn during Temple service. Likewise, the Purim festival has achieved its fame primarily through the costumes we wear – our “special garments” that we save for the holiday. The Torah commands the Kohanim – the priests – to wear the same four garments when performing their priestly service in the Temple – the turban, the tunic, the pants and the belt.
All priests wore the same garments, and the high priest was commanded to wear a total of eight garments when performing his service. Notably, nearly forty verses are dedicated to the description of the priestly garments. Why would the Torah go into so much detail? Moreover, any priest lacking any one of these garments when performing his service was liable for the death penalty. We can surely understand the need for a uniform and a respectable dress code. Why, however, was not wearing one of these garments viewed as such a serious transgression?
Incidentally, the Megillat Esther, too, deals extensively with clothes. When King Ahasuerus and Haman decree that the Jewish people are to be obliterated, Mordechai rends his clothing and replaces it with sackcloth: “… and Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and he went out into the midst of the city and cried [with] a loud and bitter cry. And he came up as far as the king’s gate, for one may not enter the king’s gate dressed in sackcloth” [Esth. 4:2].
Esther’s reaction to Mordechai’s unreserved conduct seems odd. After her servants told her what had occurred outside of the palace, she felt mortified. “…and the queen was extremely terrified, and she sent clothing to dress Mordechai and to take off his sackcloth, but he did not accept [it]” [ibid., v. 4].
Why did she send him a change of clothes? Did she think he had run out of clothes? Did she not understand that he was doing this as a sign of mourning? Why was it so important for her to send him clothes?
Later in the Megillah, after the king expresses his desire to reward Mordehcai for having saved him from the assassination plot devised by his two eunuchs, the king suggests an idea. “And Haman said: A man whom the king wishes to honor – let them bring the royal raiment that the king wore and the horse that the king rode upon.” To Haman, it wasn’t enough to just mount the hero on a horse (another symbol of royalty). He had to wear royal garments, as well.
As it turns out, both this week’s Torah portion and the Megillah teach us about the vital role that clothing plays in our lives. I have often heard mainly young people expressing their contempt for having to dress respectably. They say that clothes are not important (which is far from the truth), and that what is most important is what lies within a person (which is very true).
We must never judge a person based on what he or she wears. At the same time, it is wrong to believe that clothing conveys no meaning, or at least that it does not convey the meaning that the wearer had intended.
If Mordehcai was dressed in sackcloth, it was to convey that this was a time of great distress, and he wished to express his feelings of distress publicly, just like a person in mourning who wears a torn shirt during the week of shiva.
Esther, who was either unaware of what was transpiring – or reluctant to internalize the magnitude of her plight – wanted Mordechai to change his clothes, thinking that he had overstated the situation, and thus behaving inappropriately. Haman understood that a king’s garments are one of the greatest manifestations of a country’s honor. That is why he wanted to have the honored individual wear royal garments, and it is this that raises the reasonable suspicion that he was trying to inherit Ahasuerus’s throne.
Priests, too, are required to appear in priestly garments, since in doing so, they express the respect they are to feel toward the place they are in and the role they play. A priest who prefers to serve wearing different clothes has thus disconnected himself from everyone else, just like a soldier on duty walking around without a uniform.
Technically, one can perform the priestly duties without the priestly garments, just like one can fight in a tee-shirt and jeans. Yet a person’s clothing expresses the place the person wishes to associate with more than anything else. Mordecai wanted to express his distress at his nation’s plight, so he wore sackcloth. The priests wish to be connected to their tribe performing the services at the Temple, so they wear priestly garments.
Sackcloth, royal garments, turbans… each of these say something about their wearer, because our clothes speak on our behalf, even before we have uttered our first word, and even if we remain silent. They express the place we belong to, or the one we wish to belong to.
At times, clothes indicate our religious beliefs or our moods, perhaps most prominently on Purim, when we wear our costumes, albeit with much more loud music and fanfare. So before putting on your robes, uniforms, or any other costume you could imagine, think about what you are trying to convey about yourself on Purim this year.
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