15 Sep 2017

Haftara for Nitsabim-Vayelekh 5777: Dressing Up

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Please click HERE to listen to this week’s audio recording read by Rabbi Joseph Dweck.

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” 

Virginia Woolf

“In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable.” 

Christian Dior

 “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world…Fashion is instant language.” 

Miuccia Prada

Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9


Our haftara opens with triumph. Tziyon is exulted after generations of exile. God is portrayed as returning with Israel as his crown and regalia. The nation is clothed in garments of victory like a bride and groom in all their finery.

 God proclaims His enduring care for Israel. In His love for them He redeemed them, raised them and exalted  them as in the days of old. The restored nation shall be a holy people. This haftara concludes the cycle of seven readings that are read for consolation after the Ninth of Ab.


Over the last 22 years I had the fortune of spending much time with my wife’s grandfather Hakham Ovadia Yosef זצ״ל. He was accustomed to sit at his table at home in a white shirt, braces (suspenders) and black trousers. His sleeves were always rolled up. He would say kiddush on Friday night dressed this way usually with his left hand in his pocket.

I remember the very first Shabbat I spent with him. I had not been used to seeing him in this relaxed setting. But over the weekend he was so engaging and warm that the environment in his home was quite at ease. He told us stories of his youth and from a large jar he offered us pickles that he had made himself.  Ma’ase yadai! – ‘the work of my hands!’ he would say as he doled out spoons-full to us all.

At Shabbat’s end, as he prepared to leave for his weekly shiur, he invited me to accompany him. His driver Avraham arrived and brought out the Rav’s robe and hat. I watched the Rav don the vestments of the Rishon LeTsiyon and immediately felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. Things had been so at ease over Shabbat with the man in the dress shirt with rolled sleeves, but before me standing in his flowing, navy blue robe adorned with golden leaves and turban-shaped hat was Hakham Ovadia Yosef, one of the greatest halakhic minds to live in the last two-centuries. A man who commanded immense respect and profound authority. I was no longer standing before ‘Saba’ (grandpa), but before a king in full regalia.

All that had changed from a moment before was his dress but it was enough to express his unique, personal glory in a way that only clothing can. In this case it was not the clothes that made the man. The man was self-made and his clothes were his adornments — the outer exhibit of his distinction.

There are few things like our attire that can similarly express aspects of our identity. The Queen in her crown and royal robes, a bride in her wedding dress, even a film star on Oscar night in a gown or black tie. In these cases the clothing expresses the stature and achievements of the person; they are wearing their glory.

In Hebrew there are two distinct words for clothing. One is לבוש leboush and the other is בגד beged. We will only call a garment a leboush, when it is in the context of being worn. Beged refers simply to the garment itself, not how it is used. Leboush, therefore, can be used both as a verb and a noun. To wear a garment is lobesh leboush. But the same cannot be done with the word beged. One cannot boged beged. With leboush our clothes are adornments; the aspects of our soul and identity are represented by the garments we wear. A beged becomes our leboush.

In Hebrew, to wear something does not simply refer to the articles of clothing one might have on. When we are לובש – lobesh something we are overlaying our bodies with an external presentation. We are representing some aspect of who we are. We wear it, it does not wear us.

It is different when we wear something that is simply a covering or functional but not expressive of my self. Other words like כסה (cover) and עטה (wrap) are used in these instances instead.

The colours, textures, drape and flow, the cut and style of our clothing subliminally or overtly point to something within that is being expressed. We can tell whether a person put thought and care into what they wear. Are their clothes wrinkled or well ironed? Are they disheveled? Are their clothes loud colours or quiet hues? There is a story about us being told in our clothing.

Torah expects that the garments one wears should express the dignity and beauty of the person wearing them rather than simply being used as utilities for coverage. Clothing is synonymous with honour and splendour in Torah and is meant to epitomise it.

And you are to make garments of holiness for Aharon your brother, for glory and splendour. (Ex., 28:2)

Rabbi Yohanan referred to his garments as ‘my honours’. (Shabbat, 113b)

A person who has worked to refine his character, and achieve a wholesome self, must clothe himself in a way that expresses this.

A student of the wise wears clothing that is lovely and clean. It is prohibited for him to go out with a stain or dirt on his garments. He is not to wear the garments of royalty like gold and turquoise  that draw everyone’s attention, nor the clothing of the poor that is disparaging to those who wear them. Rather, [he is to wear] standard, pleasant clothing. (Rambam, Hilkhot De’ot[1])

There is, of course, an alternative to the use of clothing. Rather than exemplify the inner beauty of a person, it can be used to redefine the person — both to others and to oneself. Clothes are powerful in this regard. They can be used to create a persona rather than express one. Uniforms of all sorts, along with fads and trends, often do not express who a person is but rather aim at externally defining a person. It is from this possibility that the word beged is related. When an article of clothing does not become something that a person wears but instead in a sense, wears the person, it is deceptive and it betrays a person’s individual identity. The verb form of beged, boged, literally means to deceive or betray.

Our vestments have such an impact on us and others that we often tend to use them to compensate for what we believe is lacking in us or to make statements about how we wish to be perceived rather than who we actually are.

When we use clothing this way in Hebrew we would not properly be lobesh, wearing it, but covering ourselves with it.

Our haftara, the final instalment of the seven haftarot of consolation, intriguingly uses metaphors of clothing throughout. Here Yishaya goes beyond speaking of  our redemption, hope, return and rejuvenation and speaks of our

achievement of full glory and maturity. We can finally wear our garments of honour and splendour. We have earned them.

My whole being exults in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of triumph, Wrapped me in a robe of victory, Like a bridegroom adorned with splendour, Like a bride bedecked with her finery. (61:10)

In achieving our highest potentials and shining with wholeness, our clothes are the graceful external layers that express our true inner beauty. In this state of relative perfection we in turn become God’s adornments and glory.

You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of God, and a royal diadem in the palm of your Lord. (62:3)

On the occasion of the world finding its peace and Israel finding wholeness and sovereignty God Himself will be ‘wearing His finest’.

Who is this coming from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Botzrah— Who is this, majestic in attire, pressing forward in His great might? (63:1)

In our course of refinement and growth and our journeys of self-discovery and actualisation, we have many ways in which we interact and express ourselves. Clothing is one of them. It is a potent mode of self-expression and, at times, self-definition. Ideally our attire should be expressive of who we are and display in some way our positive attributes. At times, they should display the greatest aspects of our personal beauty and grace. But in our path of growth we must avoid using clothing to define, cover or restrict our unique identity. We must not draw our persona and character from the clothes we wear, nor should we use them to inhibit it. Rather we build our character from within, refining it every day, emerging continually with a fuller, more mature identity. Our clothing should reflect and honour the inherent light of life that we all bear.

When we choose our dress we must ask ourselves will this garment honour me? Will it gracefully adorn me? Or will it cover and restrict who I am? As Rabbi Yohanan taught, our clothes are our honours. We are to build and refine our selves and grace them with what we wear.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] 5:9

Parasha Perspectives

VIII  Nitzavim

IX  Vayelech

VIII  Nitzavim
28a  Yisrael: Covenant and future  (29:9-28)
28b  Teshuva and return  (30:1-10)
28c  The Nature of the Command  (30:11-14)
28d  The Choice – Choose Life  (30:15-20)

IX  Vayelech
29a  Be strong, don’t worry, God is with you  (31:1-6)
29b  Yehoshua appointed. Torah read publically  (31:7-13)
30   God intro.s Shira  (31:14-23); Moshe hands Torah
to Levi’im to put in Ark &  says Shira  (31:24-30)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS