A major theme in both the Torah portion this week, and in the story of Esther that we read as part of our Purim celebrations beginning Monday evening, is clothing. The portion of Tetzaveh details the clothing worn by the High Priest in ancient times, which, as the text explains, he is to wear “l’chavod u’litefaret,” for glory and honor. Rashi and other commentators explain these words to mean that by wearing the special garments, the High Priest brings glory and honor to God. How so? By dressing in clothes made of gold and precious threads, and wearing a breastplate encrusted with jewels, the High Priest comes to symbolize things which are rare and coveted, things which are special–he symbolizes the special and intimate relationship of God and the Jewish people.

Our Purim celebrations, of course, also include costuming–but this time everyone gets in on the act, and the dressing up is not necessarily for the purpose of bringing honor and glory to God. Rather, it is an expression of the spirit of Purim summarized in the words of the Megillah, “v’nahafoch hu,” things were reversed. Just as the fortune of the Jews was reversed and Mordechai took the place of Haman, so too commoners dress as royalty, and royalty dress as commoners on Purim. We drink in order to blur the order and distinctions that prevail in the rest of the year, and we mix things up. (Yes, this is somewhat our version of the Ventian Carnivale, which we know more familiarly as Mardis Gras.)

But the story of Esther itself also relies heavily on the idea of clothing. Esther puts on her royal garb to go meet the king. Mordechai dons sackcloth and ashes when he hears of Haman’s plot. Haman parades Mordechai through town wearing beautiful garments and a hat with a diadem on it. These are more than just interesting details; they are part of the message of the story, that outward appearances do in fact matter, as much as we tell ourselves otherwise. Clothing is part of the language of society. Our fashion communicates a great deal about our values, priorities, and identity. As both the Torah portion and the book of Esther might say, The clothes do in fact make the man or woman.

Yet we can’t stop there. What we ultimately seek is an alignment between our outward appearance and our inward sense of self. My son Jonah and I recently read one of the Ramona books (Ramona the Pest) by Beverly Cleary, which relates a wonderful and poignant episode that reminds us of this basic childhood reality. During a Halloween parade, Ramona at first delights in the anonymity of being one of a dozen or so witches with masks. But after a while, she realizes she really wants to be noticed, particularly by her teacher. So she goes up to her teacher to try to scare her, but

Miss Binney was not the one who was frightened. Ramona was. Miss Binney did not know who this witch was. Nobody knew who Ramona was, and if nobody knew who she was, she wasn’t anybody.

So Ramona ultimately decides to take off her mask and be herself. She realizes she needs to be recognized for who she is, and that she doesn’t want to hide behind the mask of anonymity.

This is an important message of the Megillah, and of parshat Tetzaveh, which will ultimately be repeated at Passover. Jews have always had to maintain a certain distinctiveness, and often that distinctiveness is mentioned as including our clothing. Yet, as we learn from Esther, in order to assimilate into a host society, we often have to adopt the clothing–both literal and metaphorical–of the non-Jewish world. The question becomes how much we can do that and still remain true to ourselves, still be recognized as Jews. This is the enduring challenge.

Shabbat shalom, and a freilechen (joyous) Purim!

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