The Clothes Do Not Make The Man: Parashat Tetzaveh–February 23, 2018


By Rabbi Heather Miller

There’s a story in the Talmud, it’s one of my favorites about a Rabbi wearing a special tallit and some commentators say that the tallit indicates that he was a newly minted rabbi. He is riding home on a donkey traveling along a lake after finishing his rabbinic studies. He comes upon an ugly man and he says, “MY WHAT AN UGLY MAN YOU ARE?!?” Without missing a beat, the ugly man says, “Why don’t you tell my Creator how ugly of a creation I am?!?”

The lesson is that it didn’t matter that the rabbi was wearing a tallit and that he was a rabbi. He was being NVR that day: Not very Rabbinic. And likewise, the ugly may might have been perceived to be ugly, perhaps because of his clothes, he was really wise, clearly. He cut to the issue. What this text says is that the outside is not what matters. We are all creations of God.

The Talmud would agree with “Rabbi” George Michael who defiantly stated in his Freedom 90! hit: The clothes DO NOT make the man!

In the world of the rabbis, according to their value system, everyone is Holy to God. Because everyone is a creation of the Creator. It’s not about the clothes. The tallit doesn’t make the rabbi. The Olympian’s glitter outfit alone doesn’t make him a champion. Though he does look quite fierce.

How many of you saw the hit film that debuted a week ago: Black Panther? It is of course a film about a man who ascends to the throne to take on the superhero persona of the Black Panther. In the film, T’Challa takes on an alter ego— a persona greater than himself— as he becomes the Black Panther.

But is this what really happens? Does his headdress make him greater than himself? Because isn’t he already pretty great? I mean, when he challenges others for the title of Black Panther, that is King of Wakanda, he does so after drinking a potion that strips him of the Black Panther powers. And he still wins.

The message therefore may be that he is already great, and his greatness is merely expressed as an outward symbol, through the Black Panther suit. In other words—his panther outfit was not the source of his power. His plain identity, his integrity, and his devotion to his community was.

Similarly, as we read on Purim, coming up this week, by the way, join us Wednesday night at 7pm, for our TOTALLY 80s Purim Party, Esther was not special because she had a crown on her head, after all, even as queen she still had no authority to make edicts or decree laws. We learn that her true worth, the power of her, was that she was Jewish and proudly stood up for who she was— as a simple Jew who decided to stand with her people. Her crown was not the source of her power. Her plain identity was, her courage, her devotion to her community was.

In this week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh, too, there is an image of an individual, a high priest in the Temple, who seemed to derive power from his elegant garb. As the Torah portion outlines in great detail, the entire Torah portion, he had several layers of robes, a breastplate, bells, a turban, and then a golden headband across his forehead, that said “Kadosh L’Adonai” meaning “Holy to God.”

I wonder, did the high priest really need to wear this headband. I mean, just like the true source of power of the Black Panther was not his outfit, and the true source of power of Esther was not her crown, the true source of the High Priest’s power was not his headband proclaiming that he was Holy to God. It was the sincerity with which he devoted his life to God. Wasn’t that a self evident fact anyway? In Judaism, certainly it is. We all are valuable. We are all creations of the Creator.

For the Black Panther, Queen Esther and the High Priest, their suit, crown and headband are simply outward expressions of their inner strength. Their inner value. And their true gifts.

When I look out at each of you assembled here tonight, I think of the hidden inner strength that is beyond your deep blue eyes or new watch, or fancy car or anything else superficial. I have come to know your hidden inner strength. Your generous care for one another. Your hopeful persistence in difficult situations.

In some ways, I wish I could bestow upon each of you a sacred vestment, like the golden headband of the high priest, that was a symbol of your inner strength. That you would wear regularly— and when you would come home after a hard day you would take it off, look at it, you’d remember that no matter how hard of a day it was, you are still holy to God. Or, to start the day, before stepping out placing this golden crown that reminds you that we are Holy to God on your head, it might center you for the rest of your day. It might reassure us in the face of defeat or degradation.

Perhaps if we had something like this, we would recognize our true gifts and realize our true power to be forces of good in the world.

We have come to the Amidah, where you will have some moments of quiet contemplation. Perhaps you will consider what it might feel like to have some sort of outward expression of your inner strength and who you think of that I hope you will consider them as just a symbol for the hidden power for good which you each have within you. Ken Yehi Ratzon.