Dignity and Splendor: Natalie's Reflections on Parashat Tetzaveh

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Please enjoy a d'var Torah this week by educational consultant Natalie Blitt. Natalie joins us from Skokie, Illinois for her eighth summer on staff. She studied English at McGill and Journalism at The University of King’s College. She's an education consultant for the iCenter, working to make Israel education an integral part of Jewish education. She is also the author of the young-adult novel The Distance from A to Z and the forthcoming The Truth About Leaving, as well as two middle-grade novels. Natalie and her husband, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, have three sons (in Nivonim, Shoafim, and Rishonim).

Dignity and Splendor: Reflections on Parashat Tetzaveh
by Natalie Blitt

My grandmother had an obsession with clothing. She didn’t care about fashion trends, or the price tag, or even if it was on deep discount (though that was always a bonus). She cared how it looked, particularly on her granddaughters. She hated linen because it wrinkled and preferred that we wore polyester dresses because they “always looked nice” (her words, not mine). We bought new shoes for family events after one particularly bad visit when she dragged us from shoe store to shoe store because the inside of one of my heels was scuffed.

It used to drive me crazy. It felt like a set of arbitrary rules that didn’t actually match the rules of the world around me: I could neither choose clothing I loved and felt good in, nor wear the clothing that was considered fashionable, or even the clothing that was of the highest quality. I wore what she made clear that she wanted.

I am always struck by Parashat Tetzaveh’s preoccupation with clothing. In some ways, it’s counterintuitive. We know we shouldn’t place value on someone’s external image but rather on the person inside and yet, the Torah seems to be telling us that actually yes, in this case, it does matter what Aaron wears when approaching God, that there is a value in being focused on the external.

Twice the Torah tells us that the High Priest's (Kohen Gadol) garments should be לכבוד ולתפארת / l'chavod ultifaret, for dignity and splendor, and the descriptions that follow it are rich and lush, the clothing of royalty.

The commentators offer various reasons for this. The Malbim suggests that an importance is placed on the finery in order “to teach them how to refine their souls and traits, in such a way they will wear majesty and splendor upon their internal souls.” And Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the Kohen Gadol’s “external appearance be comparable to that image which these people have of him by dressing him in garments reflecting his lofty assignment.”

But do the clothes really “make the man”?

At camp, clothing plays an extremely important role, especially on Shabbat. We encourage campers and staff to dress nicely, to choose their clothing with care and wear things that they don’t generally wear during the week. It’s a way that we make Shabbat different, special. And it certainly makes an impact on many of the campers. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t suddenly become angels, but there’s a difference in the way they interact with one another. When they see one another at Kabbalat Shabbat and on their way to dinner, it’s different than the way they interact before dinner on Tuesday night or tefillot (prayers) on Monday morning.

And so, in a lot of ways, it works. Change the outside and the inside follows. But it’s not enough to just put on pretty clothing. In Masechet Megillah 12a, Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina argues that the use of the words kavod and tiferet (as noted above) to describe King Achashverosh’s garments in the first chapter of the Book of Esther shows that he wore the Kohen Gadol’s clothing, and it certainly didn’t elevate his soul.

Except, maybe there’s another read, one inspired by my love for my grandmother. In her case, as a Holocaust survivor, every time we were properly dressed it was another proof that the Nazis didn’t win. After spending three years in the forests of Poland as a partisan, she wanted our clothing to reflect a polished exterior, one that wanted for nothing. My clothing became a symbol of my respect for her, a way to honor her even if it wasn’t in a way that resonated for me. Sometimes you can show your love by wearing polyester dresses and uncomfortable shoes.

All those campers and staff who come to Kabbalat Shabbat in their nicer clothing – whether out of respect for Shabbat or God or just camp rules and norms – they create something more powerful than themselves when they gather together. They feel the change they create together, and they call it camp magic, and it’s truly a demonstration of dignity and splendor.