February 17, 2005
You Are What You Wear
Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
Have you ever read in an advertisement inviting you to buy an overpriced suit or necktie that "It's true, clothes do make the man"?
Do clothes make the man or woman? On the one hand, we'd like to think that people aren't affected by something as superficial as clothing. But on the other hand, it does make a big difference when people are appropriately dressed. For example, an undertaker must wear conservative clothing in order to achieve the desired effect. Can you imagine Chuckles, the Mortician Clown, bedecked in red nose and floppy shoes officiating at a funeral? He probably wouldn't stay in business too long (although, this is California).
And today, even many public schools (yes, public schools) around the country have adopted school uniforms. I think it's a great idea. For one thing, being the one in charge of waking up my children for school in the morning, I know what it's like for my kids to first think about what they're going to wear for the coming day, and then to begin the scavenger hunt of actually finding the blue sweatshirt that goes with the designer khaki pants. Life would be a lot easier if they knew every morning exactly what they were going to wear.
But there's another reason why uniforms make sense, which relates back to Chuckles the Mortician. Clothes do affect us; not only the way others look at us, but also the way we feel about ourselves. I feel a big difference when I'm wearing a tie, rather than when I'm not wearing one. I just don't feel official -- or rabbinical -- without a tie, and I believe it affects my ability to be rabbinical when I'm tie-less.
Our children's attitudes are also affected greatly by their attire. When I see two kids wearing what passes for casual clothes these days -- low-rider torn jeans (the ones that allow you to see the polka-dot boxers underneath) -- my mind conjures the jargon of, "Yo! Wassup?" Whereas, when I see a young man with his white turtleneck speaking to a young lady wearing a plaid wool skirt, I imagine something like this:
"Hello, Priscilla, what did you think of our homework reading from Chaucer?"
"Oh, the pathos of it all was just so powerful."
Children, too, will have different attitudes about themselves and their studies if they are surrounded by a somewhat more formal environment.
What does the Torah have to say about clothes? In the book of Exodus, we learn about the special priestly garments that all priests (Kohanim) are supposed to wear when working in the Temple. The Torah declares that these special clothes are to be for "honor and glory." Among other things, these clothes include a special tunic, turban and breeches. A regular Kohen wears four special garments, and the high priest wears eight. If a Kohen attempts to bring an offering in the Temple without any one of his special garments, his service is rendered invalid. The commentaries offer several reasons for this.
First, a Kohen working in the Temple is a public servant, almost like a soldier or policeman, with a specific duty to perform. Just as a soldier must wear his uniform while on duty to make it "official," so must the Kohen. Others explain that the priestly garments are a sign of royalty, since the Kohanim are of aristocratic stock. Others explain that clothes are what distinguish human beings from animals, and so the right clothes accentuate man's ascendancy over the beast.
Still others explain that one's attitude, one's approach to the issue at hand, is deeply affected by what he or she is wearing. Before the Kohen can embark on the holiest of activities, his entire environment must be aligned with that mindset of holiness; hence, he needs clothing that is appropriate for this holy calling.
As a teacher and a parent, I know how much children are affected by their environments. Friends, parents and the media all weigh very heavily upon their development. But some of the smaller things that we take for granted also have profound effects. Clothing is one of those things, which is why, even though sometimes my children resent it, I am glad that their school has an official uniform.
On the other hand, low-rider jeans do look comfortable.
Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is spiritual leader of Kehillat Yavneh.