VaYakhel/Pekudei – The clothes we wear
A week does not go by without another new superhero movie. Americans seem obsessed with the superhero, as it provides an escape. A regular person, no different than you or me, has a unique ability. In every film, they are called to use this secret power, and then disguise themselves so their identity will not be revealed. Take Spiderman for example. He possesses unique abilities, and needs to know how to use them, because at heart he is just a teenage boy trying to make his way, get the girl, and gain acceptance among his peers. There is one glaring exception to the rule…
Our parashiot repeat almost verbatim the instructions read two weeks ago regarding the building of the tabernacle. An entire chapter (39) is spent speaking about the priestly vestments, the uniform worn by Aaron and his sons when they performed the Divine sacrificial worship. There was Aaron the family man, the member of the tribe of Levi, the brother of Moses and Miriam, and even the one that fashioned the golden calf- an event that the midrash states haunted him for many years to come. This Aaron was like any one of us, with both real gifts as well as character flaws. However, when he put on the eight garments commanded by the Torah, he became the high priest. He wore the gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen, reminiscent of kings. These same threads were used in the embroidery of the Tabernacle itself as well as for coverings when the Tabernacle was disassembled (bigdei haserad, see Numbers Ch. 4). His breastplate consisted of twelve precious stones, each with one of the tribes of Israel, and upon his shoulders were two heavenly-colored lapis lazuli stones, each engraved with six of the names of the tribes. Most importantly, on his head perched a golden diadem with the words “Holy unto God.” In essence, upon wearing these clothing, Aaron was elevated, and just as each of the utensils were anointed (read initiated) into service, so was he and his children. The purpose of these vestments was clear: l’kavod ul’tiferet, for honor and splendor (Ex. 28:2). On the one hand, the high priests were like a king, representing the Jewish people before God. At the same time, they represented the Divine presence that dwelt within the Tabernacle and by extension the Jewish people (See Nachmanides Ex. 28:2). In essence, like a superhero, the moment Aaron donned the priestly clothing he became a symbol for the enduring relationship between the Jewish people and God initiated at Mount Sinai. At the moment he put on these garments, he was granted the power to connect heaven and earth, the infinite with the finite.
Until now we have said that Aaron was wearing certain clothing because he had a role to play, but in his daily life he might have been someone other than that role. Indeed, throughout Jewish history there were high priests that wore the same garments, but in their personal lives they were not only flawed, but absolutely corrupt. Clothing in Hebrew, begged, comes from the word ‘to deceive.’ When we put on a garment – any garment- we are telling the world a particular story about ourselves, a story we want others to know. If we are completely honest, we know that the disguises we wear are a partial truth at best. Spiderman is not Peter Parker, but only one of many identities, and can be misleading. The most deceptive and dangerous error we can make is confusing who we are with the costumes we wear, because while some costumes point to our true selves, other costumes mask ourselves from ourselves.
We have just finished the holiday of Purim, a day in which we wear disguises. Indeed, the entire book of Esther consists of many ‘costume changes’, as the entire book is about a people who are afraid to reveal who they are. Esther, who has a Hebrew name, Haddasah, must conceal her identity at the command of her uncle Mordechai. Her very name means ‘to hide’. When someone completely disguises themselves, at one point they may completely forget who they are. The book of Esther can be read on many levels, but on a spiritual level it can be a read as a process of becoming and self-knowledge, of pulling off the inauthentic garbs we wear.
Consider, the book of Esther opens with a party in the king’s palace. The tapestries and utensils interestingly are reminiscent of the same materials of the Tabernacle, but here they are being coopted to display ‘the vast riches (honor/ Kavod) of his kingdom and the splendid glory (tiferet) of his majesty’ (Esther 1:4). The same words, kavod (honor) and tiferet (splendor), which in the context of the priestly garments invoked the glory of the people before God and God before the people, were now appropriated by King Achashverosh as he indulges in a gross display of self-aggrandizement. When he wants to display his ‘glory’, the rabbis state he parades around in these same priestly garments from the destroyed Temple decades earlier (Esther Rabbah 2:1). In fact, as if to flaunt his power, the rabbis state that the utensils of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem were being used in this party of drunkenness and debauchery. Achashverosh, the king of fools, perverts the royal garments that are meant to glorify the true king, the King of Kings. Sadly, the Jewish people are nowhere to be seen.
Living a disguised life, a hidden life, the Jewish people forgot who they were, and the rabbis go so far as to say the Jews themselves participated in the king’s party. Far from disguising their inner identity from the outside world, these outer disguises began to dictate their inner sense and their values. It is no wonder that in a world like this the royal priestly garments can be perverted; it is no wonder that a ruthless man like Haman can emerge, a man who subconsciously wanted to wear these garments himself! (see Ester 6:7-9) In a real sense, the royal clothing of the high priest, once meant to point to ultimate values, were now being misappropriated by corrupt fools and vicious tyrants.
When Mordechai refused to bow down, it was the beginning of an awakening, a voice of conscious in a world that had forgotten any higher values at all. Following Haman’s evil decree, he stripped himself of the inauthentic clothing he had been previously wearing. He walked through the streets in mournful sackcloth and cried, the first step in repentance. Esther, sitting in the house of the king, looked from her window and was distressed by Mordechai’s unnerving display, and actually tried to cover him up- to put his disguise back on– but Mordechai refused. It is at this point that the narrative shifts, as Mordechai reminded Esther that she must stand up, she must assume who she really was in the world. This is ironic from a man who advised her to conceal her identity only a chapter earlier! In essence, first Mordechai and then Esther began to look inward and realized who they really were and what their role in life truly was. The clothing they had assumed for so long had not only disguised themselves from others, but they had disguised themselves from themselves. That was the greatest tragedy of all.
Until now we have said that Aaron was distinct from the clothing of the High Priest, that when he put on the priestly clothing he simply assumed a role, a role that was not necessarily coextensive with his true self. But perhaps the truth was the reverse: when he put on the garments of the High Priest he became his true self, who he truly was meant to be. Other times he was just playing a role. Indeed, when Aaron entered the most private of places, the Holy of Holies, the place where once a year he communed with God, he wore various priestly garments. Seen as a metaphor, in the most inner places of our soul, that part of us that connects to the Divine, perhaps we are priests meant to bring the Divine presence into this world. God commanded the Jewish people when they received the Torah, “be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’; God did not say ‘dress up like a priests’ but ‘become a priest’. Since you are a priest, you therefore should wear the correct uniform.
Interestingly, upon the defeat of Haman, Mordechai emerges from the house of Achashverosh, adorned with ‘royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool’, reminiscent again of the priestly clothing (Esther 8:15). After years of being in disguised, it is as if Mordechai reclaimed the royal robes of the High priest once again, affirming himself as a Jew. The very next verse states that the Jewish people “enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and splendor (Vikar) (8:16). The same word used with the clothing of the high priest is now applied to the entire Jewish people. The people, having woken up from their spiritual slumber and understanding who they really were, became like the High priests in the royal priestly garbs. (See the comments of Levi of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, homily for Purim #19.)
There is one superhero that doesn’t fit the mold, a superhero created by two Jews in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1930s. In the early comics, this superhero fought the modern-day Haman, the Nazis. Of course, this superhero is none other than Superman. Unlike other superheroes, regular people with extra-ordinary gifts, Superman at his core is Superman. To function in the world around him he creates disguises, he creates the character of Clark Kent. He tries to ‘fit in’, to become ‘everyman’. Ultimately however, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot escape the ultimate truth. In reality he is not the mild man and reporter, but in reality he is ‘faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound.’ When he runs to change into his costume in the phone booth, he does not put on a costume, but rather takes off his pedestrian clothing to reveal his inner uniform, for that inner uniform represents his true self. To connect this to our parashah, his costume is like the vestments of the high priest, because both point to not a disguise, but rather point to one’s essential clothing in this world.
Like Superman who tried to disguise himself, we have always needed to disguise ourselves to fit in, so much so that at times we have forgotten who we are. However, there are moment when we want to strip off the disguise, we want to don the priestly garb. We do this not because we are playing a role, but because when we can access the deepest recesses of our hearts we realize that this is who we truly are. The Jewish people are meant to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; this is not a role we play, but it is our identity.
When we walk through life, each of us as Jews and as human beings, need to consider the most fundamental of questions. What are the clothing we wear, and does that clothing align with our ultimate values? Like Superman, each can feel compelled to hide ourselves from ourselves to ‘fit in’; however, there are times in history where we need to pull off the disguise and wear our true costume with pride.
A time like now.
 The following insight was impressed upon me by Dr. Oren Stier, professor of religious studies at Florida International University; I thank him for his comments.