Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

You shall holy vestments for Aaron  your brother, for honor and splendor.

Exodus 28.2 (Parashat Tetzaveh)

In much of the business world today, one is expected to wear “dressy casual” clothing. In male-oriented terms, this means that one might wear khaki slacks and either a sport or polo shirt to work, accompanied by loafers or, in Texas, cowboy boots. Ties are rarely seen and blue jeans are discouraged, if not entirely forbidden. Women are seen wearing slacks or casual skirts, along with flats or stylish boots; dresses and suits are rarely seen at work. It is only in the most formal of places, such as the courthouse and funeral home, where formal dress is still required.

We should not attach any value statement to this; it is simply a function of today’s society that we are more casual than previous generations; perhaps our grandchildren will revert to formal dress: who knows! But what we all know is that we stand out like a sore thumb if we wear a suit to a pool party or a bikini to a funeral; all of us need to know how to dress properly for any occasion.

Such is the case in the Torah with Aaron, the first High Priest. Aaron was the recipient of some very specific Divine fashion advice; he had to wear certain clothing when he performed his priestly functions. While much of his clothing was symbolic, none of it (with the exception perhaps of the Urim and Thummim) was functional; it had no intrinsic theurgic powers.

So why could Aaron not wear blue jeans while officiating at the Altar? Like all officiants in every faith, Aaron wore symbolic clothing to differentiate himself from the faithful. His clothing symbolized his status as the High Priest. While his sons also wore special clothing, Aaron’s vestments were unique; only he could wear them. In fact, the Torah tells us later that when he died, his son Pinhas took his vestments upon himself only after a solemn and elaborate ceremony.

In other words, if we were Israelites standing on the outer fringes of the Tabernacle, watching the daily sacrifice, we would be able to distinguish Aaron from among the Priests and Levites standing about the Altar. That is the power of his clothing.

Now, let’s think about our communities of faith. In most faith communities, it is often easy to tell who is the religious leader: it is the one wearing the tallit, the robe, the stole, etc. In our more casual world, it is the only person wearing a tie or dress, perhaps.

Notice that the religious leader’s clothing is also often unique. When I first entered the rabbinate, we rabbis always wore robes when officiating at a service. About 15 years ago, I discarded that practice in the interest of greater informality and comfort. Yet, I kept my tallit and that has distinguished me as a prayer leader; it is an interesting shift.

When I am at other, non-rabbinic jobs during the week, I see that managers and supervisors often dress slightly better than front-line employees. And their bosses almost always wear a tie if they are men. The unwritten rule of leadership is that one dresses more formally as one rises up the ladder.

So today’s lesson is this: Do not dress for the job that you have; dress for the job that you want. If everyone around you comes to work in jeans and a T-shirt, start wearing slacks and a Polo shirt. If they wear khakis, wear dress slacks and a sport shirt. Keep one step ahead in your dress code so that your bosses start to assume that you are one of them, simply by your clothing, and not one of the many. Surprisingly, this trick works so I encourage you to go to your favorite clothing store this weekend and upgrade your wardrobe.

Shabbat Shalom!

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