Dressed to Impress
by Miri Korbman
When I attended my first graduate school interview, I was not wearing a blazer. Now, this might not come as a shock to those who know me well; if I could, I’d typically choose the most comfortable clothing available to me (shapeless dress, leggings, big cozy sweater, shoes that are really slippers for normal people). Donning my very first “interview blazer” marked a momentous milestone in my professional career, and seemed at the time a ridiculous, eye-roll-worthy sentiment designed to turn all of us interviewees into some sort of uniformed, shapeless mass of desperate future graduate students.
In retrospect, of course, I recognize that there is a profound psychology behind the concept, first written by Erasmus* that our perception of others is biased dependent on their appearance, including their apparel. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, our own feelings and self-perception, our mood, our sense of confidence, are also changed depending on how we are dressed, and how we present ourselves. This is of course one of the reasons why so many schools – Jewish and secular alike – are in favor of having uniforms. In addition to hoping to diffuse peer pressure, schools recognize that students feel different when they get up and button up into their uniforms, as opposed to just throwing on yesterday’s “chill” clothes.
Clothes make the man (or woman) not only because of how we look to others, but because how we dress and carry ourselves affects how we think, feel, and act, and how we carry out whatever task we are set in those clothes. Costumes in a play are not just about creating an image or setting a scene; getting into a role requires shedding your own skin and acquiring someone else’s.
When it comes to clothing, one might think the Torah would be silent about such a materialistic concept. And yet, nearly the entire Parsha is focused on articles of clothing and related apparel specific to Aharon and his sons, the Kohen Gadol and the Kohen Hedyot, whose intricate, detailed, beautiful (expensive!) uniforms are required for their service in the Mishkan.
The Rambam in Hilchos Klei HaMikdash (10:4)* notes that if a Kohen were to perform the Avodah without any single one of his special garments, he would render the Avodah completely invalid. What is even more striking is that these clothes are not just a special coat and hat - they are textured and multi-colored; they are checkered (28:4) and made of gold, purple, turquoise, and scarlet wool (28:7-8). They are the kind of garments that would turn heads at Fashion Week, and they are being worn by the holiest men in the entire nation.
The significance of the attire of the Kohanim, and particularly the Kohen Gadol, is similar to that of the importance of the uniform of a king or dignitary. Of course, these important figures must dress in a way that demands respect. Yet, it is also true that the majority of the time, these are the very people whose outfits are literally never seen by the average Jew whose respect would potentially be garnered by their appearance. The Kohanim serve in the Mishkan, and while they may come in and out to the outer courtyards, certainly the Kohen Gadol is rarely seen by the entire nation, with the exception of the one day a year (Yom Kippur) when he emerges in front of the entire Klal – wearing not his usual uniform, but his simple, white, Yom Kippur attire.
This, then, is the true purpose of the glory and splendor of the Bigdei Kehunah; not necessarily to affect those who see the clothing, but to affect those who wear them.
In Megillas Esther, we see an interesting emphasis placed on clothing as well. Though Mordechai HaTzaddik is clearly a righteous, holy, and pious individual, we hear about his attire no less than three times in the ten chapters of the Megillah. First (4:1), when he dons sackcloth and ashes in response to Haman’s decree; and then (6:11) when Haman is bade to dress him in the king’s royal clothing to honor him for saving Achashveirosh’s life; and finally (8:15), when Mordechai comes out from the king’s palace dressed in royal clothing, including a royal crown.
These descriptions of Mordechai’s wardrobe are not insignifican. There is tremendous importance to how one dresses, what his appearance means and represents, both for himself and for others. Perhaps this is part of the depth behind wearing costumes and changing our appearance on Purim: it would not be such an influential factor in internalizing the message of V’Nahapoch Hu if our outer appearances were utterly unimportant.
Similarly, the Bigdei Kehunah are meant both to impress, and to impress upon the wearers the critical importance of their Avodah in the Beis HaMikdash. What we wear affects how we carry ourselves - when we dress to impress, we take ourselves more seriously, as well. Rav Wolbe used to emphasize the importance of Talmidei Chachachim dressing in a neat and presentable fashion, and that when a Torah scholar has a stain on his clothes, it is far worse than a stain on the clothing of an average person. This is both due to what a Talmid Chacham represents, and how he comes across to others, as well as to the Talmid Chacham himself recognizing and internalizing the importance of what he does, i.e. his Torah learning.
This week, whether in consideration of your Purim costume or your regular Thursday outfit, consider your tasks for the day, the way you want to feel while carrying them out, and the message you want to send with your appearance. Suffice it to say, I am now the proud owner of three “interview blazers;” who knows, I might even whip one out for Purim this year.
* Cited by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in The Person in the Parsha