The Clothes We Wear

The post below is written by Moshe Kempinski, a friend of mine who lives in Israel.

In modern society it is believed that it is the clothes that make the man. Much effort and finances are poured into the art of clothing and appearance. I thought of that as I was watching President George W. Bush, Palestinian leader Abu Mazen and Israeli leader Ehud Olmert posing in Annapolis for the cameras in their finely tailored suits and colorful ties. Yet all that external effort and apparel could not hide the simple fact that we were witnessing three lame duck leaders attempting project a sense of drama and importance.

The word for clothing in Hebrew is beged and its root seems to be connected to the concept of betrayal and deception, for after all the role of clothing is to hide and conceal. After listening and reading what was discussed at Annapolis, the words betrayal and deception ring loud and clear. We are living in a world where many are mesmerized by pomp and circumstance. It is a world where falsehood and recklessness can be dressed up in pretty clothing and flourish unchallenged. Furthermore in such a world, an individual may himself be tricked into believing the mirage those clothes are trying to convey. Many troubled and convoluted pathways will need to be traveled before such an individual can return to his true self.

That thought is clearly discerned in the Torah portion of Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). Joseph begins by wearing the coat of many colors given to him by his father and he flaunts this favored status in front of his brothers:

"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors." (Genesis 37:3)

Then that coat which aroused so much ire and jealousy is removed and ripped into pieces:

"And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him."(Genesis 37:23)

That same coat then becomes the tool of further deception.

"And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat in the blood; and they sent the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father; and said: 'This have we found. Know now whether it is thy son's coat or not."(Genesis 37:31-32)

During this same period, Joseph is sold as a slave to the Egyptian lord Potiphar. It is here that the "master of dreams" is given the simple garment of a slave. He is sorely tested in the house of Potiphar and even this simple garment is ripped off of him and is again used as a tool of deception.

"that she caught him by his garment, saying: 'Lie with me.' And he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out." (Genesis 39:12)

Joseph is subsequently attired in the simplest of prison clothes and it is in these simplest of garments Joseph is successful in sanctifying G-d's name without fear or arrogance.

"And they said unto him: 'We have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it.' And Joseph said unto them: 'Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it me, I pray you.'"(Genesis 40:8)

It is not long before those garments are discarded as well.

"Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon. And he shaved himself, and changed his clothing, and came in unto Pharaoh." (Genesis 41:14)

All this finally comes full circle when Joseph again sanctifies G-d's name without fear. He is finally given back the clothing he now deserves.

"And Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck." (Genesis 41:42)

By this time Joseph has learned that the clothing one wears can be but masquerade and a concealment. As a result, man must define himself by what he does and for what purpose he does it and not by what he wears. Only then can the clothes serve man's higher calling rather than man being enslaved to the image the clothes are meant to convey. It is for that reason that Jewish spiritual understanding demands that we take that external beged and elevate it into a vessel of holiness. This is true in the concern Judaism places on how one is to dress in public and the modicums of modest to be attained. It was clearly evident in the detailed description of the priestly garments or in the attachment of the tzitzit to our four cornered clothing. Clothes should not make the man but rather reflect his higher aspirations.

That is the difference between Joseph and Prime Minister Olmert and perhaps the others. Joseph has understood that the pomp and circumstance of the world are meant to glorify the name of G-d and not his personal ego and ambitions.

"And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying: 'It is not in me; God will give an answer ....'"(Genesis 41:16)

posted: December 02, 2007   |   permanent link  |  

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