My granddaughter, Daniella, who is two, has been known to go to school in her pajamas. She is not the only one. One time, one of the moms told me she was relieved that her son was not the only one wearing pajamas to school that day.
The teachers don’t care. They have rules about everything, and the children follow them very well. But, wearing what adults would consider appropriate clothes is not one of them. So, they don’t mind if the children wear sunglasses and rainboots inside or clothes that don’t match.
They know that it’s not unusual for children of this age to change their clothes several times during the day. And, that’s because what we wear is very connected to who we think we are. And, trying out new clothes is a way for children to try out new identities.
In two words, today’s parasha sums up the relationship between our clothing and our identity, what we wear and what we aspire to be. God commands Moses to make special clothes for his brother Aaron to wear as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. What are the clothes for? Says the Torah, l’chavod u’l’tifaret.
Since these words have multiple levels of meaning, they are hard to translate precisely. But, the word Kavod means ‘soul’ or ‘self’. So, one of the functions of clothing is to express our soul/who we are to the world.
By contrast, the word ‘tiferet’ comes from the root p’er which means ‘to adorn’ or ‘dress up’. And, an adornment is not something which is intrinsic to the adornee. Our hat or our necklace is extrinsic to us. And, it represents the idea that there are identities we ‘put on’, like an article of clothing, which don’t necessarily reflect our soul as it is now. This identity is not ‘us’ and we could shed it, but still be ‘us’. Yet, one of the reasons we play ‘dress up’ as children and as adults is that a new role might bring out something new in us that we didn’t know was there.
Let’s say I take a job. The job is not me. And, if I leave the job, I will still be me. Yet, the word ‘p’er’ is related to ‘b’er’ which means ‘a well of water’. A well is something which brings something hidden to the surface. And, sometimes an article of clothing or a new role we play brings something out in us that otherwise might remain hidden and undeveloped.
There is a beautiful example of this in the Book of Esther which we will be reading in a few weeks. Haman has convinced King Achashverosh to allow him to destroy all the Jews. Mordecai goes to Queen Esther and says “You have to go the King and change his mind.” Esther is afraid to go at first. But, after agonizing, she decides to do it.
On the day that Esther is to go before the King, the Megillah says:
Va’tilbash Estair malchut.
Now, the word malchut means kingship or royalty. So, the words would seem to mean that Esther dressed up in her royal clothes, the clothes only the Queen would wear.
But, there is another way to read this, and I think the Megillah meant us to read it this way, too, namely: “Esther dressed up as the queen.” To which we might say: What do you mean she dressed up as the queen? She is the queen!
But, maybe not in her mind.
This is a new role for Esther. It was a role that was imposed on her. She never asked for it. And, in the beginning, she was very reluctant to act like a queen. She was still taking orders from her cousin, Mordecai. She was still in awe and fear of her husband, the king.
So, in the beginning, the title of queen seemed like a formality to Esther, an ill fitting suit of clothes that she would happily shed. It was a role she was forced to play. It was not her. But, when the Megillah tells us that Esther intentionally dressed in Queen’s clothing, we are being signaled that a change is taking place. Esther is beginning to internalize the role of queen.
And, by the end of the story, Esther is not just wearing the Queen’s clothes. She is the queen. She feels like a queen. She acts like a queen. And, this role which she was initially reluctant to even try on, has brought something out in her that otherwise would have remained eternally hidden to the world.
The name Esther means hidden. And, in the story, it’s not only her Jewish identity that remains hidden for so long. It’s her strength as a woman that remains hidden, maybe even from herself, but is finally brought to the surface for all the world to see.
What is the difference between ‘kavod’ and ‘tiferet’? What is the difference between the part of us that is really us, our very soul, and the part of us that is an adornment, like the clothes we wear, a role we play, but not identical to us?
We know intellectually that William Shatner is not really Captain Kirk. Yet, on some level, we still think of him as if he were really Captain Kirk.
And, likewise for all of us, it is not always easy to separate our true selves from the roles we play. I was not born a father and a grandfather. And, honestly, when a child is born, we don’t immediately feel like a parent. We have to grow into these roles. But, eventually, it becomes impossible for us to think of ourselves as separate from these roles. So, now, when Daniella calls me Ziti, her way of saying Zaydie, I respond emotionally to that name as much as I do to the name I was given at birth.
Purim is a dress up holiday. Adults get to dress up on Purim, just like small children do. And, that’s because there is value in trying out new identities. It’s very often the case that a new role doesn’t feel right to us at first. It doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t feel like who we are. Yet, over time, that can change.
And, the case of women’s roles is still very much relevant today. Over the past 50 years, women, like Esther, have challenged themselves to take on roles that were in the beginning unfamiliar to them. Perhaps it felt strange to women themselves at the beginning to be doctors, lawyers, senators, CEO’s.
Undoubtedly it was assumed that the traditional role for women in society which was exclusively in the domain of the home was not a role at all. It was not tiferet/it was not an adornment/extrinsic to women. Rather it was their kavod. It was who they were. As the Psalms says explicity, ‘kvod bat ha-melech pnima’—the essence of the king’s daughter is to be an inside person, not an out in the public person.
But, this turns out to be wrong. What most people for so long thought was essence was actually a role. And, roles can change. And, the malchut/the authority and the leadership that feels awkward at first, can feel natural over time.
And, that is what our parasha and the Story of Purim challenges us to do: to constantly test our assumptions about what is our essential nature and what are the roles we can assume or discard like a suit of clothes?
True growth in a person always feels awkward in the beginning. When Moses was first charged by God to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moses said, “mi anochi ki eleich el Paroh/literally ‘who am I’ to do this job? It’s not me. It’s not who I am. Yet, Moses grew into his role. It became a part of him. His leadership brought out latent qualities of his soul. And, now, it is impossible for us to distinguish between Moses the person and the role that Moses played in our history.
We are often fooled into thinking that the inequalities in society that are intrinsic to the natural order of things. Purim teaches us: playing dress up is not just for kids. It’s something we need to do at every stage in our lives if we want to keep growing. Today’s new outfit becomes tomorrow’s identity.
So, don’t expect to see me coming to shul in my pajamas any time soon. But, I’m grateful to Daniella and her comrades for teaching me and all of us to have the courage to sample new identities. Even if they don’t fit right away, the chances are that we will grow into them.