This is, more or less, the d'var Torah I gave at Hadar this past Shabbat. I say more or less because I was still revising it after Shabbat started, which is to say that the last set of revisions never made it onto the physical page, so there are probably a few lines that came out a bit differently.
This is also the first time I've given a d'var Torah that was read from a page with 12 point font. I didn't even have time before Shabbat to print out an easier to read copy.
Also, I write in my Hebrew by hand, so when I typed in the last set of corrections this afternoon, I put in the shorter pieces of Hebrew in italics, but not the longer pieces. For those spots, I wrote, [INSERT HEBREW HERE], but when I actually gave the d'var Torah, I had the relevant quotes written onto the page in those spots.
Anyway, here it is:
Better get those costumes ready. Purim is just around the corner. This Wednesday night, we'll gather together to read Megillat Esther, and I hear that, costumes are strongly encouraged.
Now, I know that some of you have been planning your costumes for months. You've chosen the perfect pun or a favorite cultural icon. Maybe you've been working on since last Purim.
And then, there are the rest of us, who still have no idea what we'll be wearing on Wednesday night.
But that's okay. We'll work it out. And if we don't, well, there's always this week's Torah portion to turn to for inspiration.
Parshat Tetzaveh not only describes the special garments that the Kohen Gadol the high priest, and the other kohanim wore when they performed their priestly duties, it also provides us with a detailed set of instructions for how to make each and every one of them.
The instructions are so detailed that it takes forty verses to cover them all, nearly an entire chapter.
Why so much detail? It might have something to do with the line at the very end of the chapter: The Torah tells us that the priests are to wear these garments whenever they enter the Ohel Moed – the Tent of Meeting – or the kodesh, the sanctuary – why? [INSERT HEBREW HERE]. “So that they do not incur punishment and die.”
Yep, that's right. If a kohen forgets even one of his garments, he's earned himself a death sentence.
At first glance, that seems a bit extreme, doesn't it? What could possibly be so special about a set of clothing that the kohen who forgets to wear it deserves to die?
Different commentators give different reasons for why the priestly garb is so important. Some like the Ramban, compare the priests to royalty. Just like a king wears special clothing, so, too a priest should do so. Such clothing adds honor and dignity to these offices, and commands a higher level of respect for those who wear it.
But that still doesn't explain the severity of the consequences for not wearing the clothing. For that, we need to go a few steps. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the priestly garb was designed to be noticed by the Kohen. He would see and hear and feel that special clothing against his skin, and it would remind him to maintain his kavanah – his focus – as he performed his duties.
The clothing we wear affects how we behave. This is part of the reason why some schools have dress codes or even uniforms. This Wednesday night, we'll get to see other examples of how clothing and behavior are connected to each other – not only as we interact with people who are dressed a bit... differently, but also as we listen to the story told in Megillat Esther.
Clothing plays a key role in Megillat Esther. For example, after Mordechai hears about Haman's plans to kill all of the Jews, he cries, but before he does that, he tears his clothing and dresses in sack cloth and ashes. Only once he's dressed in the appropriate garments can he cry properly.
A little later, when Mordechai sends Esther to Achashveirosh to intercede on the Jews' behalf, we see a similar pattern. What's the very first thing Esther does? “Vatilbash Esther Malchut.” Esther put on her royal garb.
But it goes deeper than that. Literally translated, the verse doesn't say that Esther dressed herself in royal clothing, in bigdei malchut. It says, she dressed herself in malchut, in royalty. Furthermore, as soon as she's done this, she goes from being referred to in the text as Esther to being called Esther Hamalkah – Queen Esther.
It's as if she isn't really the queen until she puts on the right outfit.
In the Talmud, in Zevachim, our rabbis teach the following in regard to the Kohanim and their priestly garb: [INSERT HEBREW HERE]. “While the clothing is on them, the priesthood is on them. When the clothing isn't on them, the priesthood isn't on them.”
Apparently, in this case, the clothes really do make the man – or rather, the kohen.
The Da'at Zekenim explains that when the Kohanim perform their duties without their priestly garb, they violate the prohibition against Zarim – outsiders – performing temple services, a violation, which, as it turns out, merits the death penalty – so there you go.
The priestly clothing is more than just a symbol of priesthood – on some level, it is the priesthood.
We place a lot of significance on clothing. We buy expensive suits for interviews, and agonize over which outfit to wear on a first date. We make assumptions about other people based on their clothing – about their social status, chosen profession, gender, personality, and so much more.
Sometimes, we use our own clothing to broadcast truths about ourselves. Other times, clothing is the shield we hide behind, the veneer of who we want to be, or of who it's safe for us to be, or of who society expects us to be.
Clothing has power. Each time we put on a different outfit, we also clothe ourselves in a different role, as if we've just donned a second skin.
Nechama Leibowitz notes that humans are unique among living beings in that we are the only species that wears clothing – the only species that takes such control over how we portray ourselves.
She also cites the Akeidat Yitzchak, who points out that this goes beyond physical clothing. Just as our clothing identifies our role in society, he says, so, too, our actions tell a story about who we are inside.
He brings an example from Psalm 104, Barchi Nafshi, which says: [INSERT HEBREW HERE]. “Oh, Lord, my God, you are very great. You are clothed in glory and majesty.”
Similarly, in today's society, we talk about people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and in the movie, Annie, we learn that “you're never fully dressed without a smile.”
How we dress goes well beyond physical garments. Our wardrobes also include our attitudes and our actions. Physical clothing is just one piece of the impression of ourselves that we leave on those around us.
As Purim approaches, maybe we shouldn't be asking who we will choose to be on Wednesday night. Instead, maybe we should ask ourselves who we will choose to become when we get dressed every single morning.