Tetzaveh. Purim.

February 20, 2013

Tetzaveh: Clothes of Dignity and Beauty

“Make sacred clothes for your brother Aaron, for dignity and beauty. … They will be used to consecrate him and make him a priest to Me.” (Ex. 28:2-3)

Why Do We Wear Clothes?

Clothing has a dual purpose. Its first function is utilitarian, protecting us from the elements — the cold and the rain, the wind and the sun. In this respect, our apparel corresponds to the fur of beasts and the feathers of birds. Except that the animals have it better. They never need to change clothes, or worry about acquiring new garments when they wear out or no longer fit. Their wardrobe comes naturally.

The second function of clothing, on the other hand, is unique to humans. Our attire affects our state of mind; it influences how we feel about ourselves and the image that we wish to project. We feel unhappy when wearing unattractive or ill-fitting clothes, and feel good wearing apparel that is complementary. We feel comfortable in casual clothing, and dignified in formal wear.

This second aspect of clothing has great ethical value. It stresses those qualities that separate us from the animals and their simple physical needs. It enables us to attain a heightened sense of holiness and dignity. By covering our heads, wearing modest dress, and fulfilling the mitzvot of tefilin and tzitzit, we deepen our awareness of God’s presence.

David’s Punishment

When King David was old, living in his cold Jerusalem palace, he was unable to warm himself in the winter, no matter how many layers of clothing he wore (I Kings 1). Why was it that clothes no longer kept the king warm?

The Talmud explains that David was punished in his old age for a deed he had performed many years earlier. When King Saul was hunting for David in the caves of the Judean desert, David surreptitiously cut off the corner of the king’s cloak while King Saul slept. For this act of disrespect towards clothing, David paid a heavy price. “One who treats clothing contemptuously, in the end will be unable to derive benefit from them” (Berachot 62b).

In light of our analysis of clothes, King David’s punishment becomes clearer. The two aspects of clothing — its utilitarian and ethical functions — are interrelated. If we fail to appreciate clothing’s contribution to human dignity and morality, raising us above the animals, then we have overlooked its principle benefit. It is only due to its spiritual value in acquiring refined traits that we also enjoy its physical benefit — providing warmth and comfort. If clothes were meant only to protect us from the elements, we would have been better off with a good coat of fur.

When David tore the royal garments, he belittled the key purpose of clothing. His punishment demonstrates that, stripped of its ethical function, clothing loses its true value. And then, even its utilitarian value is lost.

(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 354)

Purim: Purim in Volozhin

The Purim Gabbai

In 1885, the year that Rav Kook studied in the famed yeshivah of Volozhin, he was unanimously chosen to lead the Purim revelry as Purim gabbai. The most important students in the yeshivah lit the streetlights along the road from Rav Kook’s lodgings to the yeshivah. This created a festive atmosphere, as Rav Kook was led to the yeshivah and to the home of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Naftali Tvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netziv.

Efraim Teitelbaum, Rav Kook’s roommate, related that when the Rav reached the home of the Netziv, he recited the usual verses poking fun at the administration and at events that had occurred in the yeshivah. However, instead of composing his doggerel in the vernacular Yiddish, he did so in Hebrew and Aramaic.

One of his quips was, “Berlin will sink and Berlin will rise.” That is, the Haskalah of Berlin — the ‘Enlightenment’ movement that advocated integrating into European society — will sink, while the Torah of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Berlin, will rise. Several students in the yeshivah had studied the Haskalah literature and had been enticed by it. When they expressed their delight and amazement at the Rav’s mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic, the Netziv turned to them and remarked, ‘Not only does he excel in Torah and yirat shamayaim (piety), but even in this subject you do not reach his ankles.’

Measure for Measure

In delivering his Purim compositions, Rav Kook imitated the Netziv’s manner of speech and enunciation. But he was repaid in kind many years later by the great-grandson of the Netziv, Rabbi Yitzchak Charif, who was chosen to be the ‘Purim rabbi’ in Rav Kook’s own yeshiva, Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.

Rabbi Yitzchak, having internalized every word that he had heard Rav Kook speak, proceeded to make a Purim speech in precise imitation of the Rav’s style and cadence. In his speech, he analyzed his position of ‘Purim rabbi’. Did it encompass only the rabbinate of Jerusalem, or did his nomination entitle him to officiate as the chief rabbi of all of Eretz Yisrael?

The scholarship and mental agility which he brought to his speech amazed all those present. Rav Kook was also impressed by Rabbi Yitzchak’s address. He admitted that he had been unaware of the scholar’s greatness in Torah. ‘Now I am getting my due,’ Rav Kook noted. ‘The great-grandson is repaying me here in Jerusalem for that which I said to his great- grandfather in Volozhin.’

(“Celebration of the Soul” by R. Moshe Zvi Neriyah, translated by R. Pesach Jaffe, pp. 123-124.)

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