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Parashat Tetzaveh: Can We Dress for Success?

By Andi Meiseles

“That sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.”

Any Meryl Streep fan immediately will identify this line from the monologue delivered by the discerning and demanding fashion icon she portrays in “The Devil Wears Prada.” In a few lines, we sense what drives her professional success: meticulous attention to detail; uncompromising standards of excellence; respect for craftsmanship and expertise; and a keen understanding of what moves the consumer. These qualities, along with her slyly ironic name, make one wonder if the character Amanda Priestly was familiar with this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, “You shall command.” (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

If last week’s parashah was the biblical version of “Architectural Digest,” as suggested by Rabbi Jay Moses, this week’s is “Vogue: Sinai Edition.” With plans for the Temple in place, similarly meticulous attention is now lavished on the bigdei kodesh—sacred garments—to be worn by Aaron and his sons, who have been elevated to priestly roles:

“You shall make a breastpiece… worked into a design… make it of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. Set in it mounted stones, in four rows…The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold…” (Exodus 28:15-21)

Similar instructions, very long and specific directions to create the priestly garb, comprise most of this chapter. Moses (notably absent here, identified only in relation to his brother, Aaron) is instructed to gather the most talented craftsmen. They must include in the clothing the names of the tribes, so that the priests will carry the Israelites with them in their sacred work. We also see the first mention of the ner tamid, the eternal light, which we see in sanctuaries to this day.

These themes, each significant, are merely mentioned in passing. Instead, we are offered intricacies of color, dimension, and material. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, notes a further dichotomy here; he reminds us that in Jewish ritual we are more attuned to what we hear than to what we see. Indeed, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy is Shema Yisrael—Hear O Israel. So why this obsession with physical trappings and image? Why “turquoise, sapphire, and lapis?” Why not just “blue?”

These questions take me to the kitchen table of my youth, where we would listen to my parents—first- generation Americans, children of the Great Depression, gifted with the timing of the greatest Borscht Belt comedians—regale us with tales of their childhoods. Many of them began with this set up: “We were so poor that…” How poor were they? Very. Practically Dickensian. I hasten to add that while poor in money, they were rich in humor—the ultimate Jewish coping mechanism.

To a kid, and given their comedic delivery, these stories were funny. Our parents shielded us, and maybe themselves, too, from the real desperation. In adulthood, though, I came to appreciate how much they had struggled and to understand how certain occasions were embraced as rare pleasures to savor and celebrate. I see the black and white photo of my father in his fine bar mitzvah suit and prayer shawl and wonder what sacrifices my grandparents must have made to ensure he would look and feel proud on that important day. I recall my mother describing, in such vivid detail that I can still conjure the words, her beloved “lamb’s wool sweater with pearlized buttons and a satin collar.” I still hear the pride in her voice. How excited she was to wear it, her prized possession, to her high school graduation.

There are occasions for special clothing. Details matter. Especially for those who have little, they can make all the difference.

Which brings us back to the priestly garments. We can certainly understand the command to clothe the priests in garments befitting the glory and splendor of the Temple and tending to its sacred spaces and rituals. But maybe this grandeur was also a kind of escapism, a bit of theater. Perhaps it played a role in inspiring and engaging the Israelites during the difficult days of wandering in the desert. Perhaps it offered something to look forward to, something aspirational. And maybe these garments helped create a “moment” for Aaron, the modest and unassuming, no longer the second fiddle but now the leading man. Perhaps this finery helped him embrace his new status and prompted the people to look at him in a new way. Perhaps, in the end, we really can dress for success.

Dr. Andi Meiseles is the director of special projects at JCC Association of North America.

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