Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides | Thursday, February 22, 2024
In the TV series The Bear, (available on Disney +), one of the main characters is struggling with the death of his best friend. The talented Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who happens to be Jewish in real life, plays Richard “Richie” Jerimovich, a belligerent loser who works in an Italian sandwich shop with his friend’s younger brother. Richie is not in good shape; his wife has left him, he is abrasive, aggressive, lonely, and lacking in self-respect.
Toward the end of the series, Richie gets sent to a posh, Michelin-star restaurant to ‘stage’. While there, Richie learns humility, regains his sense of self, and begins to take pride in his work.
When Richie returns home, his co-workers notice a significant transformation: Richie changes his appearance. He loses his signature schleppy sweatpants and baggy t-shirts and begins wearing suits to work. His hair and nails are groomed. He wears good shoes and begins to walk with a straighter back, his head held higher, his eyes clear, and a genuine smile on his face.
This external revolution is matched by an internal one for Richie. He begins treating others with respect and to his astonishment, he begins to respect himself, as well.
I was reminded of Richie’s journey while reading Parshat Tetzaveh. This week’s reading talks about the special clothes for the high priests and introduces us to Bigdei Kodesh or holy garments. Moses is told “Make Bigdei Kodesh for Aaron your brother, for dignity and splendor.”
Why are these clothes so important for the High Priest? Isn’t Judaism more about inner qualities rather than focusing on fancy clothes?
The Torah is saying that clothes matter, at least in the context of the role someone is serving. Aaron, already respected and loved, is called upon to look the part of a High Priest when he’s doing Hashem’s holy work. Aaron is dressed in special clothes that add dignity and splendor to serving his people and serving Hashem.
Our Sages called this concept “Hiddur Mitzvah” – the enhancement of the fulfillment of a mitzvah through the adornment of the act. Hiddur Mitzvah is why we say a blessing over wine in a silver Kiddush cup instead of a Styrofoam cup. It’s why we cover our challah with a pretty cloth rather than a paper towel. Both would technically do the job but making it beautiful adds to the holiness of the act.
That said, our tradition also teaches us that appearance is not everything. Our Rabbis created our laws, rituals, and culture to be based around ethical behaviour. How we treat one another is the way in which we create a holy relationship with Hashem. It doesn’t matter how much we dress up — if the basis of what we are doing isn’t moral and kind, then we are not following the tenets of our tradition. As Hillel said, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and study’.
So, which is it? Is it appearance that matters or what is inside? Well, for us, it is both. Bigdei Kodesh, a holy garment, only works if the person that is dressed is also holy. There is no use looking beautiful if, on the inside, we are cruel and ugly.
Parshat Tetzaveh teaches us that the external and the internal, the outside and the inside, need to work together to be source of joy, pride and respect.