Friday, March 10, 2017

Tetzaveh and Esther

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tetzaveh. It is always read within a week of Purim, and this year is no different, with Purim starting with the conclusion of this Shabbat.
Tetzaveh tells of the priests’ vestments. God tells Moses to tell his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons of how they will create their holy uniforms for the work of serving in the Mishkan. Many of the colors and materials named are the same as those named in the instructions given last week to build the Mishkan, demonstrating the importance of these garments.  One important distinction is that the priests’ clothing is explicitly meant to include both wool and linen, despite the fact that the Israelites are later told not to mix wool and linen in their clothing. This signifies the separation the priests may feel from the rest of their kinsfolk. They not only had to dress in finery and with a specific uniform to show their respect for God when entering the holy dwelling place of the divine, that uniform followed completely different rules than those of the common clothing.
The story of Purim is set in Persia, presumably in the First Exile, when there is no Temple or Mishkan or Priests standing. A Midrash from Esther Rabbah claims that King Ahasuerus of Persia and his first wife Vashti wore the stolen garments of the high priest, which had made their way to these Eastern lands after the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. These fine tunics and breastplates, created so lovingly for holy work, being worn by heretics at their feasts and lecherous parties.
On the other hand, when Esther approaches the King to make him aware of Haman’s evil plot and her own Jewishness, she is wearing “Malkhut,” royalty. In the most direct translation of the text, this is presumably royal clothing, that she is dressed in her finery to remind Ahasuerus of how desirable she is so that he will be inclined to do whatever it takes to keep her around. However, the Zohar, a Kabbalistic work, brings this back to the idea of the holy vestments of the priests. Wearing “malkhut” could mean royalty, but Malkhut is also one of the Kabbalistic expressions of God. Esther is acting as High Priest, clothed in the royal holiness, entering the inner chamber, and coming before the Most High. She is speaking to King Ahasuerus, but she is also entreating God to save the Jews. The Megillah tells us “She found favor in King Ahasuerus’s eyes,” and the Zohar says, “The secret of these words is that God saw her and remembered the eternal covenant. God heard her, and responded.”
There are much more important things in life than fashion. Though it can be a powerful tool for self-expression and various forms of wordless communication, it is ultimately superficial, and no amount of fine clothing or accessories or cute shoes or make up will make you a better or happier person. Those who know me know that I particularly do not like to go clothes shopping and I am pretty low maintenance in my look. Still, there are certain stylistic choices I make to communicate who I am. I have many kippot and like to match them to my outfits. I always wear a tallit when I lead Shabbat services or approach a Torah. I like to wear make up on Shabbat, though I rarely wear it during the week. Dressing for the role you serve and the headspace you want to be in can be immensely helpful in getting you into that headspace and communicating that role to others. And of course, no matter what else you wear when you go out into the world, which is hopefully more than only your tiara, remember: you’re never fully dressed without a smile. May you dress comfortably and well, may you feel clothed in holiness and communicate your purpose clearly, and may you always find yourself accessorized with a smile. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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