Holy Haute Couture
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10), comes just in time for the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. As the bespangled, multi-colored, wildly tailored uniforms announce to the world the national identity and prowess of each team, Jewish communities around the world are reading the Torah’s carefully crafted description about the cut, cloth, and clasps of the ancient priestly vestments. There are precise instructions about the gussets, hues, and materials; the decoration, color schemes, and ornamentation of each article of clothing.
Clearly, haute couture was not born in France or Italy, but rather in our very own fabulous scripture.
In such garb, the priest was spectacular, grand, and arresting in his appearance. His chest sported a plate of precious metals encrusted with semi-precious stones, his height enhanced by a tall headdress, his torso strengthened by a girdle as he strode, strutted, and sauntered down our ancient sacred runway.
Clothes are one of ways we express our identity, vulnerability, power and status. To this day, our clothes are far less protection from the elements than they are costume and shield, practical and provocative, and anything but trivial. Torah recognizes this and makes it clear that to command respect and awe, the priest must be properly attired. Is it simply formality on steroids or is the Torah teaching that a spiritual servant’s first offering is their own appearance?
And you shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. And there shall be a hole in its top, in its midst; it shall have a binding of woven work around its hole, as if it were the hole of a suit of armor, so that it should not be torn. Exodus 28:32
I love that this verse honestly recognizes that spiritual work is battle. Tussling with the Divine one needs both protection and exposure. To open to the gut wrenching fact that our amazing bodies will one day yield their treasure to the force of creation; that the spirit out of which each of us emerged will one day reclaim us; and to face that the embodied state is impermanent requires courage. The embrace of a spiritual life inevitably brings us near an existential crisis. Every day there are sins needing atonement, gifts needing gratitude, errors needing forgiveness, losses needing grief, and confusion needing patience. No wonder the priest’s garments are likened to armor, constructed in such a way that they not be easily torn off, as if the garments themselves would remind the priest to tend to the body even when facing crises. So, if the spiritual pursuit is so fraught, why do it?
I don’t think it’s a choice. I think most of our species cannot help but feel and respond to spirit—in the presence of power or beauty, mystery, or great emotion—so we channel our reactions into rituals and ceremony. Presiding, we gird our loins in style, lest we die.
And beneath, upon its hem, you shall make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, around its hem; and bells of gold between them. A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate upon the hem of the robe all around it. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and his should shall be heard when he goes into the holy place to face The One, and when he comes out, that he should not die. Exodus 28:33-35
Spiritual work is battle, yes, but it is equally art. The poetry of repetition, the beauty of balance and proportion, the delight of pealing bells, the harmonic spectrum, the glory of a lovingly tailored frock. These are evidence that we serve our Creator with our creativity.
May this Shabbat be full of flair and finery, may your body be well shielded and strong, and may you serve the Oneness with panache and joy.