Choosing The Right Outfit
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It was 1am. I was dressed to train for IAI, the Japanese Art of Drawing the Sword. I was wearing a samurai outfit. When a congregant opened the door and saw a sword flash just a foot or two before his face, he was shocked. Was this his rabbi? It wasn't only the sword, it was the rabbi's clothing which confused him. Please note that I never heard a disrespectful word from this congregant ever again.
The old time congregants of one of my congregations did not like the typical religious Kittel, the simple white robe we wear on the High Holidays. These congregants ordered a custom-made long flowing choir robe with elaborate white pleats for me to wear in the synagogue instead of my Kittel. I refused. I felt that the choir robe, usually used in church choirs, was less appropriate for a rabbi then samurai robes.
When six-years-old, I expected that one day I would wear a Hamburg and a Kappata, a Prince Albert jacket, worn by the heads of Yeshivot. I often wondered, because of my family's strong Chassidic roots, whether I would end up wearing Chassidic garb such as a Shtreimel and Bekeshe. I admit that I often dreamed of wearing the clothing worn by Sephardic rabbis, the turban, the colorful robe with all of their decorations.
I find it interesting that the most important clothes in the Bible, those of the High Priest in the Tabernacle, were worn only inside the confines of the Mishkan. He was not permitted to wear his clothes of office outside.
I find it even more interesting that we are taught that the High Priest was not allowed to raise his hands above that headband he wore, on which was inscribed, "Holy to God." He could never raise himself above the name of God. His clothes represented something greater than he.
Perhaps this was the most important message of the priestly garments. There is a concept of entering prayer with garments that represent the higher me. Clothes that reflect full respect for my spiritual dignity, my potential greatness.
My father zt"l referred to this mode of dress as "Yirat Shamaim," "Awe of Heaven." He explained that true awe is a deep awareness of our potential.
I definitely felt that wearing a samurai outfit made me feel more respect for my training. I feel the same way on the High Holidays when I wear my plain simple white Kittel. There are some Torah concepts so fundamental to my life's path that I will share only after donning a jacket and tie.
At a recent lecture, a man in his eighties announced before my audience that he entered a synagogue in 1985 for the first time since his Bar Mitzvah dressed in bright red shorts and a t-shirt. The young Rabbi interrupted people who were criticizing the way he was dressed, welcomed him with open arms, assured him that he could pray as he was dressed, and urged him to forget about his clothes and focus on the words. "The prayers will be your garments!" The man was so moved by the prayers that he returned the following morning in a suit and tie. He hasn't missed praying in a synagogue since. "The prayers inspired me to dress with respect. You made it about my relationship with God, not the formalities. Everything else followed. I always imagine my prayers as my spiritual clothes; I want my physical clothes to reflect my prayers."
I wear a slave's tunic; a Tallit Katan (Tzitzit) not just to fulfill the Mitzvah, but as a reflection of my sense of privilege to serve as God's servant. My Tallit Katan expresses the Mitzvot that are my true garments. I wear royal robes during my morning prayers; a Tallit, not only for the Mitzvah, but as an expression of the great honor God affords me when He welcomes my prayer. Praying makes me feel like royalty.
We are taught that the body is the soul's garment. I want my body to reflect the beauty of my soul. There is little I can do about my looks other than to treat my body as one would treat an expensive suit. The questions about appropriate clothing should not begin with samurai outfits, choir robes, a Kappata, Bekeshe, or a turban, but with our inner lives, our growth, aspirations, beliefs; what do we see when we look at our souls?
When we stand before our closet choosing an outfit we will benefit by first looking deep inside our souls, seeing the beauty and glory. We'll know exactly what to wear.