There are 54 portions in the Torah. It would stand to reason that if any topic were to dominate any of these parshahs, that topic would be of excessive interest and import to the Jewish people and the world at large. That’s why many are shocked when they realize that this week’s portion is dedicated almost exclusively to describing exhaustingly the outfit the Kohain Gadol — the High Priest — wears when performing his service in the Tabernacle or the Temple.
Many read this and reasonably exclaim: “I really don’t get what the big deal is.”
The go-to answer for most people is that the Torah is telling us that clothes make the man. We all need to dress appropriately in order to represent ourselves and the Jewish people well. We have a personal requirement to make a good and lasting first impression upon everyone around us, and if we don’t, we will never get a second chance.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think it’s fabulous advice. Nevertheless, I can’t help wonder: Is that really the message of the parshah? Did God spend 1/54th of the holiest book that will ever be written in order to tell us that we should dress nicely? And frankly, whereas I agree that it’s a good thing to do, ultimately I think it’s because of the conventions of society and not because it’s inherently good.
What I mean is: It is far better to be a sloppy good person than a well-dressed jerk. And I can confidently say that this is a very fundamental Jewish belief as well.
The wrong thinking is so very damaging. I can’t help but think about the recent controversy surrounding Abercrombie & Fitch. The CEO of the company spoke about how it only markets its clothing to cool, attractive people. Its policy is taken so far that it burns damaged clothing, lest the clothes find their way into some thrift shop and end up being worn by the wrong type of person. (Some were so offended by the CEO’s comments, they actually started a campaign to collect clothing from the Abercrombie & Fitch brand and distribute it to the homeless.)
Clothing has the potential of being nothing but an empty façade. It distracts from the immorality and incompetence of the wearer, and it is surprisingly effective. Those who know the impact can and do abuse the outer shell’s power to promote undeserving advancement.
I think the Torah’s message here is actually the complete opposite: “Mr. High Priest, we’re going to dress you in a regal fashion like no other. You will shine, and the mere sight of you will leave a lasting impression on everyone, even if they just see you for a brief moment. But understand, your personality and character are under the highest levels of scrutiny. We’re not dressing you like this to make you who you are. We’re dressing you like this so you understand how much we expect of you. We expect a personality that will fill this clothing. And we expect character traits so fabulous no one will even notice what’s on the outside.”