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

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

February 5, 2014 | 11:54 am

You step out of the shower, towel off and stand before the mirror. It’s just you and your reflection … the naked truth. Your eye appraises without mercy. Under the bright lights, no imperfection can be concealed; no blemish disguised. Or …

It’s the morning after. Lights once dimmed now illuminate the room. In the light, there are no secrets. You bare yourself before your lover. Masks removed, the “physical you” awaits your lover’s judgment.

In these moments, we tremble. This is as vulnerable as it gets. Standing naked before the unforgiving eye, we worry about the verdict we know is coming. Anxiously we wonder: Am I enough or am I too much? Will he/she/I accept the unclothed me, or will I be rejected? Do I have a future with him/her/myself, or will I face the future hiding who I really am?

Clothing dresses us up but hides the naked truth beneath

In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, Aaron, the Israelite Kohen Gadol (high priest), gets a stylish new set of clothing. Using only the best materials and colors available to the wilderness-dwelling Israelite community, the new priestly clothes ensure that Aaron appears strikingly handsome and powerful as he stands before the gathered Israelites. Having recently escaped from the drab drudgery of Egyptian servitude, the Israelite seamstresses now create a set of garments that arouse yirah and kavod (awe and respect). From this point forward, Israelite religion and its religious leadership present an image eliciting pride, pageantry and a sense of perfection.

Compared to the intricate design of Aaron’s Kohen costume, the regular Israelites are relatively naked. Sure, they have their own frocks, and some might even wear ones with some color and style, but in stark contrast to the Kohen Gadol, most Israelites are plain. Where Aaron dresses up for the Most High, the Israelites stand exposed before the Most Intimate One.

This is as it should be, because while clothing dresses us up, it only covers up the reality beneath.

Why detail Aaron’s divine duds?

Perhaps the detailed specifications and intricate design in Torah about Aaron’s clothing are designed with an ironic aspiration. Perhaps Torah wants to expose regular people — you and me — to reality: that even the fanciest clothing and impeccably matched accessories fail to dress up the most important part of ourselves. 

Every day, as we stand naked, exposed, we are forced to face reality. We need to figure out how to love our bodies, our souls and ourselves.

After the morning after

Some of us start the day worrying about which outfit to wear. Our time is better spent wondering how we will be received when we strip off our outer garments and stand before others. Without the clothing to conceal our faults and blemishes, we await our lover’s response and our own self-assessment. Am I enough or too much? Am I worthy? How must I change? Is there a future or …

We would do well to consider: Am I anxious about the verdict? Not happy with what I see? Plastic surgery cannot help here. Rather than cutting the skin, we need to reshape our soul. Instead of altering our physical shape, we do well to adjust aspects of our behavior and repair our relationships.

After the showers and the mornings after — in fact, at each moment of every day — we face a judging yet forgiving eye. We stand before the Holy One, who sees all and knows all. It is time to clothe ourselves in holy living.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman of Baltimore,  taught me recently the words of Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879). Malbim reflects upon the detailed instructions given for building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle in the wilderness) and uses them to guide us toward the inner work we each need to do. Sensing Torah’s desire to paint the Mishkan as more than a repository for sacrifices, Malbim understands Parshat Terumah to teach us to build a Mishkan within: “Each one of us needs to build a Tabernacle for God in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing oneself to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.”

Clothes cover up the blemishes but holy living removes the anxiety of the nakedness we all bear. So even as you keep your clothes on, take a good look at your naked inner self. It is time to bare your soul and uncover the holiness and beauty within.

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