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Obsessed with our clothing, almost nobody recollects why we began to wear it in the first place.

Clothed in Meaning

Adapted from Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender

 

It’s summertime in Israel now and, boy, is it hot. Have you ever noticed that human beings are the only creature in nature that cloth themselves no matter what the weather? Why do human beings wear clothing? Where did this strange concept come from in the first place?

The first place clothing is mentioned in the Torah is in the very beginning of time, when humanity still revelled in the pleasures of the Garden of Eden.

The moment paradise was lost was the moment human free choice was misappropriated for evil. Loyalty, wisdom, patience, and other values without number were all mowed down in a tidal wave of desire for immediate gratification. The world was new and the love between the Almighty and His beloved Creations was marred by nothing, yet Adam and Chava (Eve) spit in the face of their Creator. It is against this background that we encounter clothing for the first time.

Prior to the sin, Adam and his wife had no need for clothing at all. The midrash tells us that originally human skin had been made of light, meaning that every aspect of their beings had been suffused with clarity and holiness. No one aspect of their bodies or personalities vied with another for gluttonous attention. All parts of what made up a human being had been integrated in perfect concert to serve the Divine.

Before the sin, humankind was not internally moved by the power of evil and destruction. The drives towards these things faced them externally in the form of a snake tempting them to engage in shameful behaviour, but these drives did not speak from within as they do today.

Upon eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil everything changed. A taste for the destructive was insinuated into the inner self of man. The balance of power between good and evil, moral and immoral, truth and falsehood was irrevocably altered. The pure spontaneity that had characterized humanity, a humanity free to live in harmony and joy with the entirety of creation, was lost.

Poison had seeped in to the beautiful life Adam and Chava had known. Murky entanglements were to tie human beings in knots along labyrinthine pathways riddled with bitter confusions for the rest of human history. Clarity would be available, but not without a struggle. Many would fall by the wayside. Failures and casualties would be steep. The Garden was ruined. Nothing would ever be the same.   

As the consequences of their choice to behave destructively swept through Adam and Chava’s consciousness, the two original human beings experienced an emotion they had never felt before: shame. Profound regret spiked with a stunned revilement that such actions could have taken place at their hands swirled around them.

Adam looked at his wife, and Chava looked at her husband to see something they had never seen before. A filter of selfishness – the source of cruelty, stinginess, anger – had been burnt into the closeness they had once shared. Never had they seen each other as objects for self-gratification prior to this moment and never before had Adam or Chava felt so degraded. Ashamed of what they had done, ashamed of what they had become, and ashamed before each other, the Almighty had mercy on the two erstwhile children. Providing them with some measure of comfort for the embarrassment burning within them, the Almighty covered their new, earthy skin with clothing.

The word for clothing in Hebrew – begadim – comes from the same root as the word for betrayal. We – as the human race – had betrayed the Almighty, betrayed each other, and betrayed our true, elevated human nature. Grasping at straws to retain some measure of the spiritual identities we had all but forfeited, we donned clothing to draw attention away from our bodies and back to who we really are.

But as history winds on, time rubs away the sharp edges of memory. Lifetimes covered over humanity’s memories of the Garden. Clothing as a way to draw attention to the soul of man rather than the body was forgotten. Instead, clothing became the object of our affections in and of itself. In an absurd turning of the tables, the chains we were shackled in to cover over the shame  of our moral destitution became the golden bracelets we fawned over with pride.  Obsessed with our clothing, almost nobody recollects why we began to wear it in the first place.

Enter tzitzis. Although the Torah guides all Jews to clothe themselves with dignity, there is only one specific item of clothing that the Torah explicitly describes. Every Jewish man over thirteen is commanded to wear a piece of clothing called tzitzis. Tzitzis are a four-cornered undershirt with woollen strings tied to the corners. The midrash tells us that this garment is intended to save our lives:

“This is a parable about a person who was thrown into the water. The captain threw him a rope, saying, ‘Hold on to this rope in your hands and don’t let it go, because if you let it go you will have lost your life.’ Similarly, here HaKadosh Baruch Hu says to Israel, ‘As long as you are clinging to mitzvos (Torah commandments), the verse will apply to you, ‘And you who cling to the Almighty all live today’.’” (Midrash Tanchuma).

The purpose of the “rope” of tzitzis is to draw us out of the depths of a raging sea. The question is: how?

 The strings hanging down the sides of Jewish mens’ pants remind them of the lessons of the Garden. Awareness is sparked by the unusual piece of clothing that Jewish men wear. Tzitzis triggers a flood of associations leading Jews back to Adam and Chava’s terrible mistake, and back to the potential that we have strived to reclaim since then.  The harried rush after bodily hungers is paused by the strings blowing in the wind, flapping against the skin, a gentle whisper reminding us of the shameful Edenic choice we dare not repeat. Tzitzis help restore the balance.

As the ocean of materialism and sin rages around us, tzitzis are a “rope” from above. Our human spiritual potential, that which differentiates us from animals, must be remembered if we wish to keep our heads above the waters. No matter how hot it is outside, clothing betrays the secret: our physical bodies, wants, and drives do not define who we are.


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