On Sunday, my daughter, Hannah (who’s almost three), had her first ballet class. When we arrived, Hannah was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, while all the other children wore pink leotards and tights. Hannah enjoyed the class and immediately asked for dance clothes. I thought we’d go buy them sometime during the week before the next class, but she wanted to go right away. Somehow, she sensed that the class was incomplete without the proper attire.
At the dance clothes store, she chose a lavender leotard — which she wanted to be sparkly. She tried on the outfit with a shiny hair band and ballet slippers. She smiled from ear to ear while spinning around and admiring herself in the mirror. Now, she was really a dancer.
Later that afternoon, I took my kids to the Purim carnival at our synagogue. Kids were dressed up in a wide array of costumes, and some adults were too. Our head security guard, who normally wears a suit each day to work, wore instead a basketball player’s outfit. Most adults wore jeans and casual attire, except the rabbi, who wore a button down shirt and slacks. Whether in dance class, at the Purim Carnival, or at our daily jobs, I wonder why the outfit is such an essential part of the experience.
This week’s parasha too is focused on outfits — the priestly robes including that of Aaron, the high priest. Aaron’s robe was purple (with shades of blue and crimson) and extremely sparkly. The robe, covered with gold chains and rings, was filled with gold embroidery, a gold breastplate with twelve colored stones, and complete with a headdress and sash to boot. (Hannah would love that outfit!)
The Torah almost never describes what people are wearing, and we don’t normally think of the Torah as appearance oriented. Whereas a modern novel will often give details of how the characters look and what they’re wearing on a given day, the Torah doesn’t typically tell us anything about the appearance or attire of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Why then does the text describe the outfit of the high priest in such inordinate detail? Why does the high priest need to wear such an elaborate getup to perform his duties? This practice seems at odds with the Torah’s general focus on humility.
Like the rabbi at the carnival, the high priest showed respect for his task through the clothes he wore. The unique uniform reminded Aaron that his work was a sacred duty of the highest magnitude. The most important part of the outfit was the breastpiece containing twelve colored stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. God instructed Aaron to carry the names of the tribes on the breastpiece over his heart “as a remembrance before God always.” Likewise, he wore a band on his forehead engraved with the words “holy to God.”
Earlier in Exodus, God instructs the people to be “a nation of priests and a holy people.” This verse teaches that each of us should be engaged in sacred work every day. Being a good friend, spouse or parent are sacred jobs. Everything we do — even what we wear — can remind us that our most mundane daily tasks are holy to God. Like the high priest, each of us carries precious jewels of the people we care for in our hearts. Surely the image of Hannah dancing in her tutu is one that I will keep in my heart forever.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.