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Parashat 02/09/2011

Parashat Tetzaveh

by Robert Rabinoff

You shall make them linen breeches to cover the flesh of nakedness, from the hips to the thighs shall they be [28:42]

You shall not ascend My Altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it [20:23]

The kohanim, for whom the breeches mentioned in our Parashah are intended, are clad in linen tunics that reach down to their ankles and wrists, and are bound by a sash/belt.  The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) has in addition a robe and an apron that covers him from the waist down.  Why the emphasis on underpants?

At the end of Parashat Yitro, where the second quote comes from, the concern apparently is that by raising their legs to walk up a flight of steps, the kohen’s nakedness would be exposed to the floor of the Sanctuary beneath them.  The question then becomes, do stones see, that they would be embarrassed, or that the kohanim should be embarrassed before them?  The whole thing sounds a bit prudish.

I think that we are being given a profound lesson here on the Torah’s conception of modesty, and its importance in our spiritual growth.  Modesty in the Jewish world is a concept that is much more far-reaching than in Western thought, and it is clear from the moral tone of much of Western society that we would all be well-served by moving closer to the Torah’s ideals.

In the Torah’s eyes, the essence of modesty is in keeping hidden that which is supposed to be hidden, that is, the inward values of life.  If one has a precious pearl, one doesn’t go out into the marketplace showing it off to everyone – besides being a good way to get it stolen, it cheapens the pearl.  If we have a precious flower, we don’t want everybody handling it, for it will become damaged.  We don’t share our deepest feelings with the whole world (unless we live in California perhaps), rather we save them for the few truly intimate friends who will appreciate them.  And it goes without saying that our sexuality, which should be reserved for our spouse, and at the appropriate places and times, is not something we go about displaying to all and sundry.

In behaving modestly we are actually imitating Gd.  Gd is the ultimate inner value – Gd is the infinite Source of all finite creation, and dwells as it were in the very core of every creature’s being.  Gd is Omnipresent, yet we do not perceive Gd through our senses directly; instead Gd as it were “clothes Himself” in layer after layer of garments, “covering Himself” with levels of manifestation from the most refined and ethereal layers to the grossest surface layers.  Gd does not advertise Himself; rather He shares Himself with those who have yearned and striven to be close to Him.

People, on the other hand, often do display an urge to advertise themselves.  I think the reason is simply a desperate need to establish their independent existence, and this in turn is a symptom of disconnection from Gd.  One to whom Gd is an ever-present reality is by that very fact humble – how is it possible to aggrandize one’s finite self when the infinite is always right there for comparison?  And the fact that there are thousands of people out there who do feel a need to advertise themselves is a manifestation of the dangerous extent to which our whole society has drifted away from its sure anchor in the infinite and is floundering, trying to define itself in terms of the ephemeral.  Such a society cannot long endure, as even a superficial study of history will amply demonstrate.

So the next time you start to put on that bikini, or to flash those 6-pack abs, or to do any kind of self-promotion, think again.  Think about who you really are.  Think about the One Whose attention you really need.  You don’t have to shout for Him to hear you.