Subscribe to a Weekly Series

Posted on March 2, 2023 (5783) By Rabbi Yisroel Ciner | Series: | Level:

This week we read the parsha of T’tzaveh. “V’atah t’tzaveh {And you (Moshe) should command} Bnei Yisroel [27:20].” The parsha begins with the command of the proper oil to be used on the Menorah and then moves on to its main topic, the garments that the kohanim will wear while performing the service in the Mishkan {Sanctuary}.

The Torah is referred to as ‘Toras Chaim’. This is defined in many ways but the explanation that I like most is: Instructions for Life. The Torah is a manual given to us explaining how to best ‘use’ the world that was put at our disposal. What lessons for the generations after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash {Temple}can be learned from the kohanim’s garments?

“And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother…[28:2].” The Sefer HaChinuch explains that a person is ‘acted upon’ by his actions. Our actions or inactions affect our attitudes. The kohen occupies a unique position as he draws close to the Mishkan and to Hashem in order to atone for the rest of Bnei Yisroel. It is imperative that he dress in a way that will impress upon him the importance of his position and his mission. He therefore must wear these specific holy garments.

Though we no longer have the Bais HaMikdash {Temple} and the priestly garments, we do have the specific garments worn by Jews which identify us as such.

I recently was having a discussion with the parents of one of my students. They were here visiting their son in Israel and were very impressed with the progress that he had made. They asked me my opinion on why after having been so disinterested in his Judaism while he was in the States, he was so motivated and ‘into it’ over here. We discussed the many dynamics which are at work in the Yeshiva, but there was a point I made that was really unrelated to the Yeshiva itself.

I asked the parents if they felt a bit awkward and uncomfortable showing their Judaism outside of their insulated neighborhood. They agreed that they sometimes feel a bit out of place or conspicuous when they clearly ‘advertise’ their Judaism. “If that’s how you, as settled, successful adults feel, imagine how a teenager, riding the subways and attending concerts feels,” I pointed out. “If (and that’s a big if) he wears a kippah (head covering), it certainly causes him to feel very uncomfortable. It’s hard to have warm, positive feelings about something that makes you feel uneasy.”

Growing up in a non-Jewish society, we acutely feel the effects that our garments have upon us. On one hand, it forces a person to uphold certain standards, being that he recognizes that he’s not just representing himself but rather every Jew since the time of Avrohom. On the other hand, if one does not feel like carrying that responsibility (burden) or if one is unsure about his place or interest in Judaism, then those garments can have far less than a positive effect.

Sometimes our garments can force us to focus on who we really are and with whom we really identify. The high school that I attended was located in a real ‘Archie Bunker’ type neighborhood. Our free periods spent in the neighborhood school yard were often transformed from basketball to ‘punch-ball’ by the gang that used to hang out there.

Outside of school, my manner of dress was the typical teen-age ‘uniform’ of those years. One day, while riding my bike, wearing the usual jeans, sneakers and concert-tee-shirt, I rode past the school yard. Sitting there were the usual bunch of ‘intellectuals’, blasting on their ‘boom-box’ none other than the band which was at that time adorning the shirt on my chest. Suddenly, the contradiction hit me hard. I began to think… if the musicians I idolized so much would be sitting there in the park when the curses started to fly, which side would they be on? Would they join them in their repertoire? Would they sit quietly? Would they tell them not to start up? The answer was very obvious with whom they’d align themselves. It was for me very unsettling seeing with whom my shirt had aligned me…

As I told those parents, I don’t have a miracle answer to these problems of growing up in a non-Jewish society. (It certainly was part of the decision that my wife and I made to bring up our children in Israel — but that isn’t feasible for everyone nor is it devoid of its own problems.) However, it’s important to be aware of the difficulties that these issues cause young people trying to navigate their way through the teen-age maze.

The important role that clothing can play was driven home to me by none other than the Steipler Gaon, zt”l [an outstanding scholar who passed away in Israel in 1986. At the end of my first year of post high school study in Israel (at the yeshiva where I now teach) a close friend and I traveled to Bnei Brak to receive encouragement and brachos {blessings} from both HaRav Shach shlit”a and the Steipler zt”l. We nervously made our way to the Ponevezh Yeshiva where Rav Shach is the Rosh Yeshiva. Though we had undergone major changes in terms of attitude, seriousness and actual level of observance, our style and length of hair and manner of dress was very far from that of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. We nervously entered the yeshiva, dreading having to conspicuously walk through the entire beis medrash {study hall} until we’d reach Rav Shach’s seat at the front.

As we entered and were straining our necks to see where he was sitting, one of the students pointed to a seat a few feet from us, right near the entrance. There, leaning over a small shtender {lectern} was Rav Shach, absorbed in the Talmud he was studying. We moved next to him and waited for him to notice us. It took just a few moments and then he stood up and immediately took our hands warmly into his and asked how he could help us. We explained that we had spent the last year in yeshiva and were now returning home for the summer. We knew that difficult tests would await us which might dampen our chances for returning for another year. He smiled and, as he held our hands, spoke for a few moments about the importance of returning for another year of study and blessed us that Hashem should help us through any difficult situations that we might encounter. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my life.

From there, we floated on over to the Steipler’s house, expecting to receive the same warmth and encouragement. As his vision and hearing was very poor, we wrote our request for a blessing on a note which we handed to him. He scanned the note, glanced at us and then said: “Without a kippah you came to me?!”

With our knees buckling, we showed him the small kippahs on our heads. He gave us a look and said: “A kippah is a sign of fear of heaven. That, that’s nothing!” As he ushered us out of the room he said, “Hashem should help you…”

Needless to say, we were crushed. Perhaps we hadn’t accomplished as much as we thought we had over that year… We returned to the Yeshiva and spoke to some of our Rabbeim. They explained that the Steipler was teaching us the following through his reaction. Going back after our year looking the same way as we did when we left, would only complicate matters for us over the summer. Our friends would see that the outside was the same, while having no way of knowing that the inside had changed. They’d act as if we had never left and then the troubles would begin… If we’d want to avoid difficulties back home, then we should consider dressing in a way that depicts a change… A fear of heaven…

Things really went full circle when I traveled to the States a few years ago for a talmid’s {student’s} wedding. The Shabbos before the wedding was spent in a neighborhood that had very few religious Jews. A number of young men and I were walking through the streets on the way back from a seudah {Shabbos meal}. I was dressed in a dark suit, a hat and with my tzitzis hanging out. Some of the guys with me were in suits, some were in dress slacks and some in casual pants. One of the boys who was no longer religious turned to me and said, “Rabbi, do you realize just how ridiculously out of place you are over here?! Don’t you see how everybody is staring at you?!”

“I’ll tell you the truth,” I said to him, “I am dressed in a way that really stands out but I don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable, because I am comfortable with who I am. You hardly stick out at all, yet you feel so uncomfortable and you perceive every glance as a stare because you are so uncomfortable with yourself…”

“And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother…[28:2].”

May we be comfortable with ourselves, and dress in a way that is consistent with who we are inside. May we also have the understanding to realize that for some of us, dress can be a cause of negative uncomfortable feelings — pushing our standard on someone else will only bring about the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.

Good Shabbos,

Yisroel Ciner

Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner and Project Genesis, Inc.

The author teaches at Neveh Tzion in Telzstone (near Yerushalayim).