September 20, 2019

Torah portion: Blessings in disguise

My mother, z”l, measured her great success in the women’s clothing business by the number of women who liked the clothes she chose for them. When I was young, my mother shared with me her “secret of success”: People have to feel comfortable in their clothes; they have to feel like themselves in whatever they wear. 

“There’s no doubt, costume is the character,” says director Martin Scorsese in the promo for “Hollywood Costume,” the enchanting exhibition on display through March 2 at the historic May Co. building on Wilshire Boulevard, adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A number of actors quoted there talk about how they didn’t really get into character for a role they were playing until they put on the costumes designed for them by a highly skilled professional costume designer. Then, suddenly, they became the character. Throughout the exhibition, costume designers talk about the combination of skill, experience, research, art, craft, emotion and spirituality that goes into their work, as well as their appreciation of certain directors and actors who understand the ways costume designers are a vital part of the creative team. 

Costumes and costume design, of course, are much older than Hollywood. In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, God describes to Moses the sacral vestments (“costumes”) the priests are to wear, and who is to make them. “You shall tell all who are wise of heart (khakhmei lev), whom I have filled with wise spirit (ruach khokhmei), to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest” (Exodus 28:3).

God goes on for 41 verses (Exodus 28:2-28:43) to name the vestments — breastpiece, robe, headdress, sash, etc. — and the colors and materials to be used — gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns, and the fine linen — as well as what’s to be made of what and for whom and for what purpose. It’s unusual for anything to get so many verses in Torah, and that’s just by way of introduction! In later portions, we hear these descriptions again when the vestments actually get designed and made by the wise-hearted costume designers imbued by God and appointed by Moses.

The timing doesn’t happen every year, but this year Parashat Tetzaveh’s description of the costumes of the priests falls during Shabbat Zachor (remembrance), the Sabbath before Purim. The juxtaposition gives us an added reminder that Purim is a time for us, too, to don costumes and to experience their transformative power. (Talmud Megillah 12a even suggests that for his special feast at the beginning of the Bible’s book of Esther, the story read for Purim, King Ahasuerus arrayed himself in priestly robes.) 

The origin of wearing costumes on Purim remains uncertain, but one reason suggested is that in the Purim story, Esther becomes someone she was not — a queen with all the royal finery that title implies — while hiding the fact that she is a Jew. Esther, whose Persian name Estaire is related to the Hebrew word meaning “concealment” and “hiddenness,” discovers/becomes her true heroic self while in disguise. 

As the story unfolds, Esther grows comfortable not only in the new clothes given to her, but also with the remarkable person she becomes while wearing them. In the special Torah verses for Shabbat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-25:19) and in the Purim story itself, it is the people, not God, who are called upon to fight our enemies — “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:19). 

Thus, on Shabbat Zachor, in Parashat Tetzaveh and on Purim, our sacred texts remind us that we might be called upon to take on new roles at different and especially important times in our lives. How will we become comfortable with the roles and clothes we will inhabit? How well will we perform the actions required of the new character we discover within ourselves?

Most people think of Purim as a fun few hours in which to escape our usual appearance (and lives) and pretend to be someone we are not. But costumes can provide a great deal more: Ways for us to experiment — yes, sometimes to pretend to be someone we are not — but more importantly, sometimes to discover who we are, or who else we are, and to unearth other parts of ourselves we may not have known, or may not have been willing to explore in any other context or until now. And, sometimes costumes help us understand each other better, by allowing us, literally, to walk in someone else’s shoes, and to find new truths in our friends, family members and even “enemies” through the disguises they choose to inhabit. 

Whether empowering us to step up to new roles in our lives, or simply making us more comfortable in our own skin, our costumes surely bring us blessings in disguise. Chag Purim sameach!

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), “House of New Life,” founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual Jews, our families and friends.