Some people say that talking about clothes is shallow. They think that focusing on the externals is a shallow pursuit and that there is nothing to be gained by looking at the way we dress. Whilst there may be some truths to it, who hasn't felt better when wearing a new pair of shoes or putting on a crisp new shirt for the first time? Doesn't it just feel great when you know that your new outfit is a stunner and sometimes an evening goes better almost because of the clothes. Today's Kosher Sutra is about the how we can use our external clothing to access our glorious inner spirit, and to release ourselves from the pressures of the outside world.
"And you shall speak to all the wise-hearted people whom I have invested with a spirit of wisdom and them shall make the clothes of Aaron..." (Exodus 28:3)
"And you shall speak to all the wise-hearted people" begins a passage that instructs the Children of Israel to make the priestly garments for Aaron, who was to be the High Priest of Israel. The narrative speaks of garments which include a robe, a tunic and a breastplate engraved with stones representing all of the tribes. It was very glitzy, glam-rock in its own way. A few years ago there was a marvellous Versace exhibition at the V&A Museum in South Kensington, but even the late Italian designer's outrageous creations didn't include anything to match the diamond-encrusted uniform of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).
Here's the thing; although Aaron had to wear this outfit which even included a golden headband (am I the only person who's thinking of Wonder Woman here?) and hem of pomegranate-shaped bells, it wasn't about the outside. He is famous for his ability to bring peace between people, and when the entire nation eventually spent a month mourning for him, they certainly weren't commemorating the loss of a great fashion item. The plot thickens, as do the layers of expensive fabric.
This weekend is the festival of Purim, which is the only occasion when the Rabbis actually recommended wearing fancy dress*. I've always taken this commandment very seriously, both on and off Purim, whether it was costumed birthday parties - a punk-themed breakdance party in the 80's, Rocky Horror parties in the 90's - and getting stuck into various lycra-clad superheroes over the years. Ironically though, one reason for the spiritual dressing-up game is to connect us with modesty rather than exhibitionism. Stay with me on this one: the whole essence of the Purim story is that there was no obvious mention of God, and despite the huge miracle of the Jewish people being saved, there were no obvious miracles. We are told that God's face was hidden ('Hester Panim'), and by wearing a costume, we are actually hiding away a part of ourselves.
The theatre began with the use of wearing masks so that the actors' faces would be hidden. This wasn't so that we wouldn't see them, but so that their external personality could fade away and blend into the character they were portraying. The Greek audience could watch the characters and see beyond the outside, so the masks would actually allow the actors to reveal the inner part of themselves. We still have this today when actors use extensive make-up to portray a different character which is a long way from themselves (Dr Evil, Goldmember and Mr Powers are three that come to mind). While I was at drama school, my acting teacher and yogic inspiration Edward Clark taught us that the biggest compliment he could give to an actor is that "I didn't recognise it was you on stage". Not because of some extreme latex and make-up, but because the actor had managed to completely blend their personality into the role.
Yogic practice has the concept of Brahmacharya which is a kind of modesty, or celibacy. It is a holding-back which allows us to be set free. The Yoga Sutras describe how "the practice of modesty/celibacy brings us to attain a great strength"**. This is true in the everyday practice of asana and vinyasa (posture and movement yoga), where we discipline ourselves to move through postures and gradually strengthen our body and mind. Ultimately yoga is a purely internal practice but we use the body to reveal our inner strength and allow the poses to practice subduing our desires and make us stronger.
Before the High Priest had to put on his garments he would dip in the mikveh, the ritual bath which was the original source of the Christian baptism. When someone steps into the mikveh it is almost as if they are washing away a part of themselves, and when he put on the priestly garment he became a spiritual conduit for the world, revealing his inner purpose through his outer clothes. We see people changing the whole time when they wear different uniforms, whether it is policeman,
nurses or soldiers, and people can easily get seduced into being attached to external garments (think: "the ring! give me my preciousssssss"). The fancy dress of Purim is actually a form of modesty that can remind ourselves that we are not our body, we are not our wardrobe, but we are special and unique beings***.
Today's Kosher Sutra is about reminding ourselves of our internal wisdom, the chocmat Lev, as it was only the truly wise who could see that clothing could be an important tool to reveal the inner self. Our yoga practice today is about turning everything on its head, which is the essence of Purim. Let's start practicing our headstand...
i. Place both forearms on the floor and take hold of either elbow.
ii. Keep your elbows in the same place and interlace your hands in front, forming two sides of a triangle with your forearms.
iii. Place the crown of your head on the floor.
iv. Put your feet in 'downward dog' pose and gradually start walking them towards your head.
v. When you are ready, slightly lift your head to check there is not too much pressure on it, and if you can, lift your feet into the air. It's easier to bring your knees into your chest to begin with.
It's best to practice the headstand either in the presence of a qualified yoga teacher or a certified lunatic. You can, however, do as much as you're able, but be very careful of your neck and don't move your head whilst in the pose. It still 'counts' as a headstand if you place your head and hands on the floor with feet in Downward Dog, without actually taking the full balance. Do what you can. Age is no excuse - Iyengar's still swinging 'em high well into his 90's. Please G-d by all of us....
As you move into today's yoga pose, try reflecting on the fact that the body is purely a conduit to the soul. Your body is a garment to see you through for a few years, but when we can acknowledge that it is purely temporary, we can begin to free ourselves.
Who'd have thought it? Dressing-up on Purim is really about modesty rather than attracting attention. Last week I asked a rabbinic friend about one thing I could do to increase my sense of modesty and humility. He instantly shot back: "cut your hair". I can't say I'm ready for that quite yet, although it does need a trim. For now I'll focus on preparing the glam-rock make-up scheme for this Saturday night's costume. Have a great one.
*Shulchan Aruch, Rama 696:8.
**Yoga Sutras, 2:38
***This is also a reference to the character of Esther in the Megillah, who epitomised the quality of tzniyus/modesty - "In reward for the modesty that Rachel had, she merited to have Shaul as a descendent. And in reward for the modesty that Shaul had, he merited to have Esther as a descendent" (BT Megillah 13b). "Esther did not reveal her origins or
her nationality, as Mordechai had told her" (Esther 2:20).
Thanks to Rabbi Eric Goldman's excellent article 'Behind the Mask: Internalizing Ourselves'.