Friday, March 6, 2020 /10 Adar, 5780
Parashat T’tzaveh Exodus 27:20-30:10
It is fitting that this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, falls just days before Purim, when we will dress up in frivolous costumes and reenact the story of our people overcoming a tyrant named Haman.
Tetzaveh is similarly concerned with clothes that are worn. It focuses on the garments of the High Priest, which are considered so sacred that Rashi insists they embodied the very essence of the divine. The Priest had an intricate costume, complete with a breast piece, an ephod (vest), a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash, each to be created delicately by skilled hands. Each item, highly symbolic, represented a sin the people wished to overcome. When the high priest entered the holy of holies to atone for the sins of his people, these items allowed him to ascend from his personal perspective to one that is more universal. As my teacher, Dr. Norman Cohen, teaches in his book Masking and Unmasking Ourselves, in wearing these garments, “he was able to reach out to others and make atonement for all humanity.”
The Rabbis of the Talmud go so far as to say that when the priestly garments are worn, the “priesthood is on them but if their vestments are not on them, their priesthood is not upon them.” (BT Zevachim 17b) The clothes, quite literally make the priest.
Whereas the priestly garments clearly visualize his priestly identity, the book of Esther repeatedly teaches us the opposite, that things are not always what they seem. Esther’s very name means “to hide” and she spends a large part of the story hiding her Jewish identity. She is afraid to approach the King, even when she learns that his right-hand-man, Haman, wants to annihilate her people. Garments in this case are also revealing. After Mordechai convinces Esther to act on the people’s behalf, she puts on her royal garments. On the inside she may feel scared and insecure, but when she puts on her royal garb, the Rabbis teach that she “enveloped herself in the garments which embodied the Holy One.” (BT Megillah 4b) She skillfully convinces the king that her people should be saved, and that Haman should reach his bitter end. In this way, the very clothing Esther wears reveal an inner strength and wisdom she did not know she possessed. In wearing a royal costume, she was not hiding her true self after all. Rather, she had been hiding her true strength from herself.
This Purim, many of us will wear costumes of Toy Story characters, superheroes, and perhaps even characters in the Megillah itself. Our change of persona is fun and exciting, but it may also be illuminating. Just like the priest, and our heroine Esther, the costumes we wear may reveal truths about who we are, and the people we aspire to become.
Rabbi Cassi Kail