As I was surfing the web the other day, I came across a short video on a very interesting Youtube channel called Vsauce. In this video, Michael Stevens — a very charismatic and informative young man — was trying to answer a question as ancient as humanity itself: Why do we wear clothes?
Besides the usual reasons (e.g. to protect us against the cold, sun or wind), Michael was proposing a rather peculiar theory: we wear clothes because we are intelligent. In the animal world — Michael was explaining — when it comes to procreation, there are two main approaches: some animals spend the majority of their time producing offsprings, while other animals spend the majority of their time taking care of their offsprings.
People are part of the latter category. As mothers and fathers, we spend a lot more time taking care of our children then we spend producing new ones. The main reason for this behaviour is that our children actually need the care and attention we give them. Unlike many animals who can walk and even fly shortly after birth, we humans are born pretty helpless. As newborns, we cannot talk, we cannot walk, we cannot gather or cook our food, we cannot even protect ourselves against the cold or heat or any other dangers. Scientifically speaking, it seems this is connected to our intelligence in the sense that, in order for our mothers to be able to carry us in their womb, we need to be small enough. As such, when we are born, our brain (and the rest of our body, for that matter) is actually pretty small compared to what it will grow to be in an adult human. In short, humans are born “under-developped”, and only then, during our lifetime, we grow to be smarter, stronger and more independent.
And here is where our clothes come into play… If we would simply walk around naked, we would be more sexually attractive and, implicitly, we would procreate more. By covering our private parts, clothes create a kind of “social barrier”, keeping away potential mates and thus limiting the number of children we produce. Thus, we get more time to spend with our existing children, to whom we are now able to offer all the care and attention they need to survive and develop.
I must confess I did not particularly enjoy the explanation… It seemed too convoluted and also too scientifically (or maybe “animal”?) oriented for my taste. You can only imagine my joy when, in reading Parashat Tetzaveh this week, I found in it a better, more nuanced and closer-to-my-soul explanation.
To be perfectly honest, I have to agree that our parsha does not attempt to answer Michael’s original question: “Why do we wear clothes?” However, it does answer a more particular version of it: “What purpose do clothes have in the context of spirituality?”
At the very onset on our parsha, G-d talks to Moses and says the following:
Now you bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the Children of Israel — Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron — to minister to Me. You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, לכבוד ולתפארת, for glory and for splendor. — Exodus 22:1-8
An ancient proverb says that “clothing makes the man”. And this short fragment of the Torah seems, at first glance, to agree with this… As a matter of facts, the Jewish law and our Sages’ interpretations are very clear on the matter: no kohen can serve in the Tabernacle or the Temple unless they wear the special set of clothes described by the Torah in our parsha: the tunic, the breastplate, the robe, the head covering etc.
But what does לכבוד ולתפארת — “for glory and for splendor” — actually mean?
In his commentary on the verse, Ramban (Nachmanides) quotes no less than ten different sources from the Tanakh (from the books of Kings, Psalms, Daniel and the Prophets) to explain the role of clothes in creating “glory” and “splendor”. The Ramban talks extensively about the ability clothes have to bring upon the wearer a special status. The kohanim seemingly wear the clothes described by the Torah as they would a crown or a royal garb which elevate them from amidst the nation and place them on a pedestal of holiness.
But contrary to all of Ramban’s sources and interpretations, the idea that clothes elevate a person’s status to one of “glory and splendor” is completely new. Nowhere in the entire Torah until now can we find a verse or a paragraph that agrees with the idea that “clothing makes the man”.
Granted, some examples of people wearing clothes appear in the Torah as early as the first chapters in Genesis. But in all those episodes, the clothes bring up a completely different message…
The first human action immediately following the eating — against G-d’s commandment — from the Tree of Knowledge is to become aware of the lack of clothing: “I heard Your voice in the garden and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid.”, says Adam in Genesis 3:10.
Also, the first act of chesed, of lovingkindness, done by G-d immediately following the same episode is to make clothes for the first humans: “Adam called his wife’s name Eve (Chava, in Hebrew), because she had become the mother of all the living. And Hashem Elokim, G-d, made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and He clothed them.”
A beautiful and amazing explanation on this verse comes from the former Chief-Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In his commentary, Rabbi Sacks points out that the moment humans used clothes for the first time in history was also the very moment when they became aware of their own identity for the first time. The moment of wearing clothes coincides in Genesis with the moment the Torah uses, for the first time ever, the proper names for Adam and Eve. Until that time, they were simply called “ha-adam” (the man) and “ha-isha” (his wife).
So, to review until now: in the first chapters of Sefer Bereshit, the clothes are intrinsically related to shame, identity and the relationship between man and G-d.
But there are a lot of other episodes in the Torah where clothes carry a different kind of significance. For example: deceit. Joseph wears a “coat of many colors” which is used by his brothers to deceive their father, Jacob, into believing that Joseph is dead. Jacob himself uses the “clean garments” to trick his father into giving him the blessing of the first-born. Tamar sets aside her “widow garments” and dresses up as a prostitute in order to trap Yehudah into sleeping with her. And Joseph again “shaves and changes his clothing”, right before being summoned at the court of Egypt, in order to spare Pharaoh from seing him in his dirty and torn prison clothes that he was forced to wear for two full years.
And there is also, of course, the story we will read in just a few days, on Purim, in which clothes are portrayed as a symbol of glory and shame. For example, Mordechai receives a special set of royal clothes when he is honoured by Haman. And Vashti, Achashverosh’s first wife, is asked to dance in front of the guests without any clothes on, wearing only her royal crown, as the Talmud points out.
So, what do we have so far? Shame, sexuality, identity, deceit, social status, ritual and the relationship between man and G-d. A rather solid list of symbols and ideas for some seemingly unimportant objects meant only to protect us from the elements and to proclaim that we are intelligent beings who need more time to raise our young. Isn’t it?…
But let’s go back to our original question: what purpose do clothes serve in Parshat Tetzaveh? Why is it so important that in the Mishkan, the kohanim wear these clothes “for glory and for splendor”, in order to be “sanctified” in the eyes of the people?
Sforno, one of the Medieval commentators on the Torah, has a very simple and yet very clever answer: the phrase לכבוד ולתפארת — “for glory and for splendor” does not refer to the kohanim at all. It actually talks about G-d Himself. Through their ritual clothing, the kohanim were attracting the people’s attention to the role they were performing in the Temple, namely to serve G-d. G-d was the One whose “glory and splendor” was promoted in the eyes of the onlookers. He was the One to Whom people prayed, the One towards Whom their thoughts, words and desires had to be directed in order to be answered.
In the Mishkan and later in the Temple, kohanim without their clothes would have been as “naked” as Adam and Even had been at the beginning: they would have been without identity, without purpose. However, once dressed in bigdei kehunah, once wearing the priestly garments, the kohanim were becoming symbols of a relationship stronger and more important than any one ritual. With their special clothes on, the kohanim were indeed a vessel for kedushah, for holiness, allowing people to communicate and interact with G-d.
And this is how things were for many hundreds of years…
But after the Distruction of the Temple and the onset of the Diaspora, the special kohanim clothes lost their significance. Today, we don’t wear them anymore, and we also don’t look at their wearers as a means of coming closer to the divine. Today we can choose if and what clothes to wear and, apparently, the special message of clothing in general was lost forever. In the day and age of secularism, the modern clothes are only meant to protect us from the elements, to show our social status and, perhaps, to fulfill the purpose underlined in Michael’s video. Isn’t it?
Well, it most certainly isn’t!
In just a few days time, on Purim, the clothes we wear will probably be able to say about us a lot more than our current ones can. On Purim, instead of a skirt, a shirt, a suit or a tie, we will wear masks and costumes, apparently meant simply to amuse us or to conceal our identity. But the fact that we choose to wear masks and costumes on Purim, and that we do it al ha’nisim ve’al ha’purkan ve’al gvurot ve’al ha’niflaot, in the memory of the miracles and the wonders performed by G-d for us and our forefathers, as a rememberance of our history with Esthers and Mordechais and Hamans — that mere fact brings back all the symbols…
Because on Purim, wearing special clothing speaks about our identity more strongly perhaps than words ever could. On Purim, our clothes send a clear message: we are Jewish. As funny and strange as they may be, on Purim, our clothes are also worn “for glory and for splendor”, the same as the bigdei kehunah were in the Mishkan and the Temple in Jerusalem.
When you dress up for Purim this year, think about the fact that 5,775 years ago, G-d Himself decided to present our ancestors with clothing and, in doing so, He encouraged them to assume an identity and a name. It is probably not a random coincidence that the בגדי עור — the “garments of skin” mentioned in Bereshit have also been interpreted by the Midrash as an allusion to בגדי אור (this time spelled with an aleph instead of an ain), which translates as “garments of light”. A light that is mentioned by our parsha as well, immediately before Aaron’s clothing, as part of G-d’s commandment to light the Menorah eternally.
The light of the world’s beginnings, woven into Adam and Eve’s clothes… The light of the Menorah, reflected on the clothes of the Temple’s kohanim… A clear, powerful and shadowless light, reflected even today on the clothes we wear as a symbol of our identity. An identity we chose long ago and keep on choosing every day, for ourselves and for our children — in the midst of the Jewish nation.