‘Living with the times’, is a motto of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l that resonates with me. He suggested that every day we ought to find inspiration from a segment of the current Torah reading. So what are we to make of the confluence of Fashion Week in New York over the last few days and in London over the Shabbat in which we read the sedra of Tezaveh ?
London Fashion Week (LFW) takes place twice a year – in February and September, one of the big four international fashion trade events together with Paris, Milan, New York – where designers showcase their new creations to an audience of 5000 buyers and press. If you follow fashion, or have seen photos of what is presented on the catwalks you know that the new fashion collection that are presented are very creative but not really practical or even wearable for most of us.
So is it relevant to normal people, who are neither in the business, nor celebrities invited to grace the front row?
But before you are tempted to dismiss it as just shmattes, it is worth bearing in mind that the LFW alone generates between £40 -100 million in sales. And the global apparel market is valued at 3 trillion dollars, and accounts for 2 percent of the world’s GDP.
The Torah portion of Tezaveh presents God’s own debut as a designer, with a capsule collection specially designed for the kohen gadol, the high priest.
God is incredibly specific in detailing the exact fabric, the color, the size, and the method for constructing the eight pieces. In fact, the instructions take up about forty verses.
Why so much attention to the details of the high priest’s garments?
‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’
(attributed to Mark Twain)
It seems that the high priest draws influence from the garments specially made for him:
וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־כָּל־חַכְמֵי־לֵ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִלֵּאתִ֖יו ר֣וּחַ חָכְמָ֑ה וְעָשׂ֞וּ אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֧י אַהֲרֹ֛ן לְקַדְּשׁ֖וֹ לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִֽי׃
‘And you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest’. (Exodus 28:3)
It is not enough to simply be clothed, but the specifications and characteristics of certain garments enable us to carry out precise functions. There are some great examples:
Each of the fourteen layers in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), otherwise known as a space-suits has a particular function: from a water cooling layer to regulate body temperature to one that regulates air pressure. We can also look at the gear that Olympians wear; fast swimsuits that give olympic swimmers an edge by reducing skin friction and drag of the body on the water. And what is it about being clad in tight fitting Lycra & Spandex that enables us to tackle exercise ?
Returning to the high priest, what special function did his elaborate outfit enable him to carry out?
Various commentators elaborate on the practical function of each garment, for example the bells sewn into the hem of his robe announced the kohen’s arrival. This is interesting, but not easily relatable to our own everyday life.
Here I’d like to turn to the Tanya, the handbook of Hasidut Habad. Its fourth chapter is dedicated to the topic of levushim, garments of the soul. It explains that our soul is our essence, and that part of us that strives to connect to God, through Torah and mitzvot, On its own the soul is all spirit and holiness, but cannot find actual expression, spiritual growth or connection to the Holy. It is only able to do so through physical expressions called levushim, garments. The soul has three levushim;
מחשבה thought – used to understand Torah
דיבור speech – to study the laws and details of mitzvot
מעשה action – to put the details of mitzvot into action
The levushim don’t merely cover up the soul, so that it is embodied, but are what enable it to function in the world. This reframing of the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual expression is a recurring theme is hasidut and one that I find very useful.
But to go back to clothes that hang in our closet, we all have some well worn favorites that we love. We may not be interested in keeping up with new fashion collections or even feel the need to change our wardrobe every season. We may be most comfortable when slip into our favorite cozy sweater. But is that a good thing?
Think back to a time you wore something different for the very first time. How did you feel? I know that as a young teacher, barely a couple of years older than my own students, wearing a structured suit jacket was just what gave me the feeling of competence and authority I needed.
Considering how our physical attire affects the way we feel, let’s imagine what we could achieve if we injected some creativity in our own soul’s garments. What could a Fashion Week for the Soul offer?
A different way to access Torah; perhaps through the mystical language of the Zohar, or the lens of philosophy. A new ritual, perhaps one that doesn’t feel routine can refresh our spiritual practice.
The new designs being paraded at Fashion Week can be easily dismissed as totally unrealistic for real people to wear, and thus irrelevant.
In reality, there’s a huge amount of creative boundary pushing in fashion design, these ideas eventually filter down to the ‘ready to wear’ market and change what the average consumer buys and wears, and very gradually, even how we view what we have been wearing until that point.
As we read Tezaveh over Fashion Week, let’s ‘live with the times’. Let’s step out of our old, comfortable, go-to wardrobe staples, and try out something we would normally dismiss. Let’s enable our soul to find new meaning in Torah and new expressions of holiness in our world.