Saturday, February 8, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh - Dress Codes

            Quick Poll: How many of you need to dress in a uniform or according to a dress code for school or work? How does that make you feel? [I’d like some real answers here – is it comforting to know that you are dressed appropriately or does it feel oppressive and confining? Or something else entirely – maybe you don’t even think about it.]
            In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, G-d describes, in great detail, the proper uniform for the Temple Priests that Moses is to have made. This was not a simple dress code to promote modesty or professionalism as we know it today. This was a very specific uniform, that not only described the tunic (equivalent perhaps to a suit), but also included specifications for underwear and accessories. Imagine if your school dress code included mandatory jewelry and a particular pair of underpants. That seems a little absurd, doesn’t it?! I don’t think I would want to live in that world.
            But for the Israelite priests, the dress code was important to set them apart. To show to the rest of the people that these were the leaders to whom the Israelites could take their ritual and spiritual questions. While we can be very grateful that however restrictive our uniforms or dress codes they don’t specify every single article of clothing we wear, we can also learn from this week’s Torah portion the useful significance of uniforms or dress codes. Your clothes should never be what define you, but they do help to identify you to others.
            Think about this: you’re in a store and you can’t find what you’re looking for. You know to ask the person in the identifiable store uniform for help. Your doorbell rings, and you don’t like to open the door for strangers. But you can see that the person at your door now is wearing a UPS uniform, so you know it is ok to open the door and sign for your package. At school, students should all be treated as equals, and uniforms or dress codes help to establish an even footing for all students. Depending on the strictness of the dress code, clothes can still be used to help identify common interests. If you were the new kid at school and you saw someone wearing a t-shirt advertising your favorite band or movie, giving you a quick and easy way to start a conversation and make a new friend.
            The debate about uniforms and dress codes vs. clothing as an expression of free speech has always been interesting to me, because both sides of the argument are so valid. It is nice sometimes to express yourself through your fashion, and to be able to identify potentially like-minded people through clothes, and a strict uniform might prohibit that. However, a uniform would help to identify your position, job, or place, and equalize people whose fashions might reflect their economic status and cause tension or distraction in school or the work place. This week’s Torah portion illustrates the importance of clothing and of identifying ourselves to others. If you already live in resentment of your existing dress code or uniform, use this Torah portion and learn to appreciate how much more oppressive it could be, and at least you have weekends to wear whatever you want. May we all find ways to express ourselves regardless of how we dress, and appreciate whatever clothes we have. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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