Well, what should we talk about this week? The upcoming Torah reading, as we usually do? Or should we look ahead to next week’s Purim celebration, and talk about the holiday?
Let’s do both!
Because the fact is, this week’s parashah has a striking connection to the Purim story from the Book of Esther. They are linked by a particular theme — one that does not come up too often in the Bible but features prominently in both readings: clothing.
The bulk of Tetzaveh is composed of intricate descriptions of the High Priest’s clothing. And it is all quite ornate. He is to wear — among other things — a turban, a bejeweled breastplate, and a long robe with little pomegranates and golden bells hanging all around the hem.
The purpose of this extravagance, in the Torah’s own language, is to display “glory and splendor.” The High Priest should not just be holy, but also beautiful. Indeed, that is just how he is described in the famous song “Mareh Cohen” from the Yom Kippur liturgy:
“Truly, how radiant was the appearance of the High Priest, when he emerged from the Holy of Holies…”
So while it is rare for the Torah to spend much time worrying about clothing, in this case, for the figure who is meant to inspire the nation, we make a notable exception.
The Purim tale, however, also makes such an exception. Toward the end of the Book of Esther, after the Jews have managed to escape the threat of destruction, one of the heroes of the story is vividly described as follows:
“Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool” (Esther 8:15).
Not only does this image echo the High Priest in its general description of fancy clothing, there are even details that evoke the priestly garments. The blue of Mordechai’s garments is just like the “pure blue” of the priestly robe (Exodus 28:31), and the crown of gold is reminiscent of the priest’s golden headpiece, which was engraved with the words, “Holy unto the Lord” (Exodus 28:36).
So what is the connection between Mordechai and the High Priest, between Purim and our parashah? A moment’s reflection brings the realization that both descriptions of glorious garb take place soon after a period of great danger followed by ultimate salvation.
Just as the Jews in the Book of Esther prevail over enemies who seek to destroy them, so do the Israelites at this moment in the Torah’s narrative stand just on the other side of the great Exodus from Egypt, having escaped slavery and then the pursuit of Pharaoh’s army. So on one level, these formal garments are signs of celebration, a kind of triumphant victory parade.
But more than that, these flamboyant displays of color and beauty are precisely what have been denied to the people while they suffered under subjugation. Slaves are denied the full expression of their humanity; they are stripped of their identity and property and kept quiet and inconspicuous. The Jews of the Purim story also are forced to hide their identities and practices, for fear of being persecuted. Indeed, the hero of the story is Esther, whose name means “hidden,” and who marries the king without revealing her Jewishness, only finding the courage to “come out” to him at the last hour in an act that ultimately saves her people.
So clothes are a way of expressing not just holiness and splendor, but freedom. To be able to dress as we choose is to express our identities without fear of ridicule or attack. It is to bring some part of our internal selves out into the open.
We do a version of this on Purim when we dress up in wild costumes. We can choose any character or identity we dream up and go out in public with all of our “pomegranates and bells.” But the Purim costume also contains an element of the hiding that we had to do before we gained our freedom.
In a sense, then, the real triumph of Purim takes place the next day, when we take off our masks and walk freely out into the street as ourselves.
Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at www.parshanut.com