Tetzaveh & Esther: Royal Garments

Parshat Tetzaveh describes the creation of the magnificent garments of the cohen gadol, the High Priest. These were designed by the finest designers, and produced by the most accomplished weavers. They were spun in the royal colors of royal blue, purple, and crimson. The full handmade outfit included underwear, a robe, a tunic, an apron, a sash, a metal breastplate, a headband with God’s name, and a royal turban.

Some say the cohen gadol wore this fancy outfit in order to impress the people with the power of holy ritual. Some say it helped him assume his own role as the intercessor between God and the people. Others say the cohen gadol wore this many-layered outfit whenever he entered the Holy of Holies to intervene with God on behalf of the people, to protect him from the full awesome power of Divine presence.  However, you interpret it, clothes make it possible for the cohen gadol to play his spiritual role, for himself and for others, inside and out.

Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, is also about clothing.

King Achashverosh holds a gigantic six-month party. In the sixth month, he asks his wife Queen Vashti to come to the men’s party wearing her royal crown. She refuses. She is banished.

The king calls all good-looking young unmarried women to his palace so he can choose a new queen. A Jewish girl named Esther is chosen, and she is crowned with the royal crown. Esther does not let on that she is Jewish (kind of a major plot glitch, since everyone knows she is related to Mordechai the Jew.)

Esther’s cousin Mordechai uncovers a plot against the King. The courtier Haman tangles with Mordechai and resolves to have all of Mordechai’s relatives, the Jews, killed. When Haman’s edict is made public, Mordechai puts on sackcloth.

Esther sends him some nice clothing so he can come visit her, but he refuses to put it on. Through a messenger, he persuades her to intercede with the King, though it may cost her her life.

Esther puts on “royalty” – we don’t know if it’s robes or attitude, and approaches the king to invite him and Haman to a private party.

After the party, the king can’t sleep. He is reminded that Mordechai saved his life, and asks Haman what should be done to the man the king wishes to honor. Haman says, he should wear royal garments belonging to the king, and the king’s crown, and ride the king’s horse. The King gives Mordechai the honor.

At another private party the next night, Esther reveals Haman’s intent and her Jewish identity. Haman is executed, along with all the enemies of the Jews. Mordechai gets royal robes of blue and white, a magnificent crown of gold, and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. (Quite like the cohen gadol’s outfit.)

The real main characters in the story are the royal crown and the royal robes. The whole story is about passing the crown and the robes from person to person. Notice they never go to Haman.

You can imagine someone choosing to play the royal robe in a bibliodrama activity: “I am the royal robe. I have been passed from sweaty body to sweaty body, from perfumed princess to nervous minister. The stink of evil makes me cringe…”

You can draw parallels between Esther and the cohen gadol. Special garments help both of them prepare spiritually to risk their lives, to take on the role of intercessor, and to impress onlookers with their stature. The difference is that the cohen gadol approaches God, and Esther approaches the king.

But… you could draw parallels between Achashverosh the absolute monarch whose laws cannot change but who can act capriciously and God the ruler of the universe, revered as the One who creates the laws of nature, but challenged as capricious when those laws bring us pain. Or, as we might say, when life’s lot falls on us poor-ly – playing on a pun with the word purim, meaning “lotteries.” Some might say it is sacreligious to suggest this parallel, but it is a common, well-accepted midrashic technique to interpret any teaching story about a king as a story about God.

As you may know, God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther – not as a character, or a presence, or an object of anyone’s belief. Some people, such as myself, think that Esther is in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, to speak to the hearts of secular Jews. It’s a story about Jewish identity, persecution, and courage, relevant two millennia ago, as it is now. But others think that God is in the story in more subtle ways. After all, the main character’s name is Esther, which means in Hebrew, “the hidden one.” If the main human character is hidden, maybe there is also a hidden divine character.

I’d like to follow this thread – so to speak.

Our spiritual tradition teaches that God wears garments, livushim. These garments both conceal God and reveal God. According to one school of Hasidic thought, the world is made up entirely of divine energy, clothed in the forms we know as ourselves and our fellow creatures. Everything we see and experience as solid is merely a fancy piece of clothing that conceals and reveals the divine. Most of the time, the clothes dazzle us, and we see only a world filled with ordinary creatures. But sometimes, through grace or hard work, true perception bursts through. We touch God in what we thought was ordinary life, and we grow.

Each of us is an expression of divine energy, clothed in a body and a personality that is also an expression of divine energy. Our “true” nature is both our garment and what lies beneath the garment. Self-discovery, in a spiritual sense, is discovery of both. You could say it’s discovery of our calling – both in the earthly sense of how we can use our talents to make a difference, and in the spiritual sense of recognizing that something greater wants to connect with us. Spiritual self-discovery allows growth – but not in the ways that Haman grows in greed and prejudice – that’s why Haman never gets to wear the royal robes.

And here is the thread that ties our spirituality firmly to daily practice. The physical clothing we wear helps us discover ourselves. It does this both by concealing and by revealing. Here are just two examples, one of concealing and one of revealing. If we enter a new situation, and luckily we happen to be wearing socially appropriate clothing for that situation, some of our personal vulnerability is hidden, and we can test the waters with more confidence. Clothing can also help us speak out against an established order.  We can dress just inappropriately enough to be allowed into a group while challenging its mores: think of the first women wearing talitot.

There’s so much more than can be said about clothing. Clothing helps establish ritual moments, invoke spiritual traditions, invite emotional nuances. All of these help reveal ourselves and our calling to us.

No wonder clothing is the star of Megillat Esther, a story in which a young woman finds her calling. And no wonder clothes are a central part of Esther’s holiday, Purim. A ritual of costume wearing allows us to explore ourselves by concealing and revealing. We can express the hidden socially inappropriate laugh track that plays continuously in our minds, play with gender identity, pretend to be someone we’ve never confessed we aspired to, or simply parody who we have become. In each case, we allow ourselves to play at being more than we are. We allow ourselves to peek at the self that is behind our everyday garments, so to speak, and to explore the larger possibilities of expressing the divine energy within us.

Images: messianic-torah-truth-seeker.org; jewelry-blog.internetstones.com; preciousoils.wordpress.com; pinkpianos.com; scrapiana.com; hillary kaplan by laura duhan kaplan

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