Dressing distinctively in the Torah
There’s an old saying you don’t hear much anymore — “clothes make the man.” Perhaps the word “man” violates modern standards of inclusive language and “clothes make the person” doesn’t have the right ring. Or perhaps the loosening of dress codes, business casual offices, and a trend to dressing down have made people believe that how we dress doesn’t really mean much anymore.
However, this week’s parasha contains three separate commandments dealing with clothing.
The Torah says, “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear women’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.” The commentaries explain that at a time when there was virtually no social mixing between men and women, the Rabbis imagined that the only reason someone would dress as a member of the opposite sex would be to gain entry to a place where he or she should not be in order to do something he or she should not do.
The next verse is, “You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.” This mixture of wool and linen is known as shatnez and it is one of several laws prohibiting kilayim, mixed kinds, which also forbid mixing plant or animal species.
And then the Torah says, “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” These are the tzitzit that distinguish every tallit and are meant to remind us of all of God’s
While these verses contain very different laws, they have something important in common — they all deal with distinctions.
The prohibition of cross-dressing suggests that men and women are different — that they have distinctive roles to play. These days, we debate the nature of this difference, whether it’s just a matter of a few, albeit critically important, biological functions or whether the difference is so fundamental and essential that men and women seem to inhabit different planets. However, even in our most egalitarian society, we find men and women fulfilling different roles, whether by choice or by nature.
The law of shatnez is also about distinctions. The various prohibitions of kilayim teach us that one of the wonders of creation is that the world is filled with innumerable species of plants and animals, each with its own purpose and role to play.
And, of course, the tzitzit are a sign of the unique role that God has given to the Jewish people. When we look at them, we are meant to remember the 613 commandments that God has given to Israel, not because we are better (or worse) than any other people, but because as Jews we have a unique covenantal relationship with God and a unique mission in the world.
In “Tales of the Hasidim,” Martin Buber relates this story: A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”
As this week’s Torah reading teaches, each person is different and each person has a unique place in the world that can be filled by no one else.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.