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Wearing your true self

Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

by Rabbi Michael Barclay

February 20, 2013 | 3:09 pm

“Do not judge by the flask, but rather by what it contains” (Pirkei Avot 4:20).

We are taught from a young age not to “judge a book by its cover” and we raise our children to look deeper than just at the clothes someone is wearing. Yet in this week’s portion we find a good deal of time spent describing in detail the dress code of the High Priest, and Aaron’s need for clothing of “glory and splendor (Exodus 28:2). We are even taught in the Talmud how powerful these priestly clothes are: “When wearing their garments, they are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood(Zevachim 17b). Are we to believe that clothes actually do make the man? Or are we to focus on the words of the Mishnah above and not judge by the flask?

The truth lies in a deeper understanding of the garments of the Kohen Gadol, which included a robe with spectacular colors and golden bells on the bottom of it, but especially with regard to the “Urim and Tumim” (Exodus 28:30), roughly translated as “light” and “completeness,” the stones of prophesying that were part of the High Priest’s outfit. Each tribe of Israel was represented on the breastplate with a different stone. Questions would be asked of the High Priest while in his sacred clothing (bigdei kodesh) and the stones and letters would glow, illuminating the truth. Rashi taught that it was called Urim because the appropriate letters would light up and Tumim because if read properly it would give complete answers (Bavli Yoma 73b). A bit odd to our way of thinking in the 21st century, but there is an important teaching that can be gleaned from this “magical” item.

The key is to recognize that our outer garments should always be “bigdei kodesh” (sacred clothing) and that what makes our outer layers sacred is when they are true reflections of what is inside us. This portion teaches us that our exterior persona and the spirit deep within us should always reflect each other. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught that Aaron deserved the Urim and Tumim because his heart rejoiced at the great distinction his brother (Moses) received. Aaron, the first High Priest, had his inner joys reflected in the right to wear the Urim and Tumim. There was an integrity in his outer and inner realities. Similarly, the Ark of the Covenant had gold on the inside and gold on the outside — the inside and outer shell were honest reflections of each other.

Sometimes, as in the case of the High Priest according to the tractate Zevachim above, the clothing helps us align and integrate what is inside. We have all experienced putting on special clothes, be it a tuxedo or a kitel, and finding that we feel more special and in the appropriate mood for the event. 

For 50 years, the Magic Castle in Hollywood has insisted on a dress code in order to help people recognize that they are about to have a special evening, and this type of practice has worked on all of us. Robert Bly, the great author and professor from Minnesota, has made it a point to often lecture on the importance of wearing that “little red scarf” if it makes you feel more special, no matter what anyone else thinks of it, and many people have their favorite clothing that helps them feel stronger. Mourners wear a ripped piece of fabric so the rip that their souls feel is reflected on their outside. From ancient times to now, there is a constant truth that, while it is the contents of the flask that should be judged, the outer layer can help us develop what is inside more fully and completely.

The ancient Hebrews traveled with banners by them, and each tribe’s crest had the color of its respective stone on the Urim and Tumim (for example, Judah’s turquoise stone was a sky-blue banner, Issachar’s sapphire stone was a banner of blue-black, and so on). Yale University’s crest has on it the Hebrew “Urim v’Tumim,” a commitment to “light and truth” (lux et veritas). Our crests and clothing, whether as individuals or groups, have the potential to help us integrate our soul’s purpose and share it as an honest commitment and expression in the world.

May we all be blessed to have our internal and external realities be in harmony and reflect each other, and may we each find our own expressions of truth and light in our lives. 

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul of the Conejo and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.

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