Holy clothes figure prominently in Pa-rashat Tetzaveh. Aaron the high priest gets spiffily decked out. In his prestigious role, he wears nothing but the finest. He dons a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash. Distinguished and distinct, he readies himself for his holy work.
Clothes matter in the Torah. It is a pretty big problem in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve don’t have them on. Jacob cunningly tricks his father, Isaac, by using an animal skin as clothing. Joseph gets a lavishly striped tunic and his brothers feel like chopped liver. And the list goes on. The priests’ clothing specifically helps them to do God’s work with the appropriate honor and concentration. It, too, plays an important part in the drama and holiness of the priestly sacrifices.
Interestingly enough, clothing also figures into the Mussar movement, the study of Jewish ethics and the cultivation of different personality traits that help us become better people. Mussar master Rabbi Menachem Mendel Levin (1749–1826), the author of “Heshbon ha-Nefesh: the Accounting of the Soul,” lists 13 different attributes or traits that we must inculcate, including the trait of cleanliness. At first glance, we may wonder how in the world cleanliness, of all the things to strive for, could even make Levin’s list. But for Levin, careful and meticulous attention to our appearance, to what we wear and how we wear it, can be a direct link to our inner spiritual purity.
This may really surprise us; don’t some of us often view fine clothing as pulling attention away from inner spiritual purity? Isn’t it counterintuitive? Wouldn’t paying attention to our own dress make us even more self-absorbed?
But ironically, Levin maintains that attention to our own clothing and hygiene can heighten our empathy toward others, including those who are not able to dress in clean clothes or who lack the available resources to keep their bodies clean.
Levin reminds us that it is natural for us to recoil when we see someone who is dirty or shabbily dressed. But he also points out that this can be erroneous: What if the person is someone who once had the means to take care of himself? What if he or she has lost everything? We really can’t know the whole story based on external appearances.
Levin teaches us that the goal is for us to become more empathic toward this person. By focusing our awareness on what clothes our bodies, we build such empathy toward others.
In the Talmud, we read a beautiful story about Hillel, who upon ending his study for the day, is asked by his students, “Where are you going?”
“To perform a mitzvah, a commandment,” he answers.
“Which one?” they ask in curiosity.
“To wash in the bath house,” he replies matter-of-factly.
“Is that a mitzvah?” they ask, surprised.
Hillel answers patiently, “Yes, if the statues of kings, which are erected in the Roman theaters and circuses, are scoured and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them, how much more so should I wash my body, I who have been created in the Divine image of God?”
For Hillel the elder and Mussar master Levin, cleanliness is indeed next to godliness. And appropriate clothing is the crowning touch for a clean body. But how do we strike that finely tuned balance toward attending to our external appearance and tending to our inner purity? How do we dress for the holy task while keeping the goal of becoming more empathic front and center in our hearts and minds?
We, like the priests, have the ability to transform our own lives into acts of elevated holiness. The beauty of rabbinic Judaism is that the pervasive power of the priests now lies in our hands. Let’s take good care of ourselves — wash up and dress up to transform the world into a place of holiness and behold the divine image in all of humanity. The world so sorely needs our priestly presence as we put our best foot forward.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.