Do the Clothes Make the Person?

Dear Rabbi,

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many things in my life. Although I still carry on my profession, the way I practice law has been altered dramatically. For the most part, I work from an office in my home. I “see” my clients by phone unless some sort of emergency is involved and then only in an open area. The biggest change has been the way I dress or more precisely do not dress.
For my entire professional life, I would get up, shave and put on a suit, shirt and tie as part of the ritual of going to work. I have many suits and would not wear the same outfit more than once a week. I will say the “suit” gave me an appearance of “looking” like an attorney and in a sense feeling like one. In the rare occurrence that I saw a client in anything other than a suit, the initial look on the client’s face was one of concern. It did not matter that I gave the same “sagely” advice as when the suit was worn, it did not come across as well.
If I had an appearance in court, not only would I wear a suit but I would tell the client that he or she should be appropriately dressed in front of the judge if for no other reason than leaving a favorable impression on the person that would decide the client’s fate. Sometimes you have to be more precise in what you say. There is a famous story about an attorney that was defending a pimp in a criminal matter and before the day of the first court appearance, the attorney told the client to get dressed in his “Sunday best”. The attorney did not think through what he advised his client, and when the client walked into the courtroom, he was wearing an all yellow colored ensemble including a suit, shirt, tie, shoes and a yellow fedora complete with a yellow feather. The judge took one look at the client, became outraged, told the court officers to “throw out banana skin” from his courtroom and at the same time held his attorney in contempt for making a mockery of the integrity of the court.
My suits now lie in my closet gathering dust except for a few court appearances that I made through zoom and even then I had to think twice about wearing the suit pants. I did but only because I was not sure whether the judge would make me stand before I made my argument.
In this week's ParshahTetzaveh, we discover the special garments worn by the priests and high priest when serving in the Tabernacle. The detail of how the garments were to be made rivals what we read last week in Parshah, Terumah, and how the Mishkan was constructed.
The First Aliyah describes the making of the High Priest's ephod — a reversed apron which covered the back — and its precious-stone-studded shoulder straps.
In the Second Aliyah we now read about the High Priest's Choshen Mishpat ("Breastplate of Judgment"). It contained four rows of precious stones, each row containing three stones. Artisans engraved the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel upon these twelve stones. This cloth breastplate contained a fold wherein the Urim v'Tumim, a parchment on which was written G‑d's Name, was inserted. The Choshen Misphat was then secured by straps which connected it to the ephod.
The Third Aliyah describes the last two of the garments which were exclusive to the High Priest: the me'il and the tzitz. The me'il was a blue robe which was adorned with golden bells and cloth "pomegranates." The tzitz was a golden band worn on the forehead, which was engraved with the words "Holy to G‑d." The Torah then describes the four garments worn by both the High Priest and the regular priests: tunics, turbans, sashes and pants.
I guess making an impression counted when the priests had to convey the word of G-d to the Israelites and “clothes made the man”.
The Forth Aliyah prescribes the procedure for consecrating Aaron and his sons as priests. They immersed in a mikvah (ritual pool), and were dressed in the priestly garments. Moses then offered various inaugural sacrifices on their behalf.

The Fifth Aliyah continues describing the procedure for the offering, and the consumption of the inaugural sacrifices. G‑d commands Moses to repeat this inaugural service for a seven day period, after which the consecration will be complete. At the risk of being called a heretic, I do not give much thought to something that I believe will never be brought back even if the Temple is rebuilt, but there is one paragraph that intrigues me greatly. It is Exodus 29:29, which states the following:
 “The holy garments that are Aaron's shall be for his sons after him, to be exalted through them and invested with full authority through them.”
In Parshah Yitro we read how a judicial system was created to help Moses in deciding how to dispense justice. It was created by a non-Jew, Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, and called for the wisest among the Israelites to decide most of the legal decisions that had to be made to resolve disputes. In the Fifth Aliyah we are given a description of how future High Priests are to be inducted. It starts with Aaron and is then passed down to his heirs with the only real requirement being the wearing of the garments. There is nothing about the competence of the person dispensing the spiritual experience we as Jews are supposed to accept. That to me is mind blowing.

There was a television series a number of years ago entitled “The Greatest American Hero” The series chronicles the  adventures of a substitute teacher, named Ralph Hinkley after a group of aliens gives him a red and black suit that grants him superhuman abilities. The aliens’  instructions are to use the suit as a means to fight crime and injustice in the world. Unfortunately for Ralph, who hates wearing the suit, he immediately loses its instruction booklet, and thus has to learn how to use its powers by trial and error, often with comical result. As Ralph lost the suit's instruction manual, his discovery of these different powers often come as a surprise even to himself. Notably, while the suit enables Ralph to fly, it does not endow him with any particular skill at landing, so he frequently crashes in an undignified (though undamaged) heap.

In a sense, the Fifth Aliyah envisions some descendent of Aaron donning the “suit” and having to guide the Jewish people in the ways of Judaism.  Rabbi, as someone that went to school to learn how to lead us in our spiritual pursuits, how do you feel about this?

I will leave you with this. I am in my forty-eighth year since I graduated law school and when 
I left, I was taught a great deal about the law and I put on the “suit”, but I was not a lawyer. This comes only after years of trying to “get it right”. I hope that those that lead us spiritually have that same feeling.


Dear Mordecai,

I love this opening; it is another example of you knack for connecting the parsha to contemporary experience.

The transition from this parsha to parshat Yitro was unexpected and masterful. The television series featuring Ralph Hinkley was quite amusing.

I would develop your question further:

  • What role to clothes play in the performance of someone’s job or function in life?
  • Does the donning of clothes give a person the power to do their job?

 I take your question to be largely metaphorical. In fact, I touch on the theme you raise in my Shabbat message this week about masks. The donning of clothes is similar to the donning of the name Rabbi. The question may also be, How does Seminary prepare a person to guide others on their spiritual path?

What I have learned will not surprise you. On the job experience is invaluable. I often tried to serve as a spiritual guide to people before I was ordained and even before I was a student. The main difference is between providing spiritual guidance to an individual and providing spiritual guidance to a collective. I won’t even say that the latter is harder than the former because it involves more people. Providing guidance to one person, when taken seriously, is harder. Knowing a person in a deep, intimate sense is essential to being able to offer them spiritual guidance. This is a function of time, to be sure, but it is also a function of the guide’s capacity for listening and intuiting. Neither of these is a skill that is taught in an academic setting.

Guiding a group spiritually can be easier since group dynamics operate more superficially. Conflicts will naturally arise, but through pragmatism, principle, and compromise, they can be overcome.

For me, the experience of guiding our collective, the Jericho Jewish Center, has shifted dramatically since the announcement of our merger with the Woodbury Jewish Center. Prior to that decision, I was facing a fractured congregation with many special interest groups vying for power and authority. I don’t want to paint that bleak a picture. We also possessed a worship service that deeply moved many individuals who made a point of coming every Shabbat. Our worship life was reasonably strong. In that setting, I pondered what kind of spiritual guidance was needed. Unfortunately, COVID brought these considerations to a halt. I don’t know where they would have gone had the pandemic not hit.

At this juncture the spiritual task before me is pastoral. How do I manage the grief inherent in leaving a sacred space? How do I assure that our congregation’s integrity somehow survives the merger experience?

I prefer to work with people one-on-one because I like the prospect of personal transformation. The name Rabbi can help me get a conversation started, but sometimes it adds a kind of distance that is challenging to overcome.