A lesson in politics
We are now hopefully emerging from the pandemic (hopefully…), and we wonder how our life has changed, which of the new habits we have acquired during the pandemic are here to stay.
I have read somewhere that one of the most significant changes in how we dress now. Think of all these meetings on Zoom, a virtual place when we show only our face and -sometimes- only the top part of our clothing. Put here a joke about pyjama trousers…
There’s a paradox in clothing. Clothes cover us, hide us, but at the same time, they communicate something about us.
In the Torah we find -perhaps for the first time in the history of humanity- the formulation of this strange paradox of clothing, this “thing” which covers but at the same time uncover, and by doing so, it communicates.
The most famous case is when Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden. At that point, they realise for the first time that they are naked. That’s strange. The first couple of human beings had known each other literally from their birth; they had seen each other naked already. Why do they choose to cover? Not that there was a large crowd in front of which they may feel ashamed or embarrassed. Nonetheless, the first thing that Adam and Eve do when they begin their life out of Eden, in the real world, is to cover their bodies. That is because they want to communicate who they are and what they have become to each other.
Another prominent part of the Torah about clothing is this week’s Torah portion. In chapter 28 of Exodus, we read the description of the dress Aron is ordered to wear when he performs sacrifices inside the Sanctuary, in front of God. It’s a very detailed description that excites those who love Kabbalah: literally, every piece of clothing and jewellery offers material for mystical speculations. But to the rest of us, especially the most liberal and rationalistic, it seems just a very detailed and tedious description of an exotic set of clothing.
I will try to derive from this chapter some political teaching. I’d like to call your attention specifically to two items.
The first is the golden frontlet, the “tzit” [Ex 28:36] with the words “Kodesh l’Adonay” — Holy to God- engraved on it. This item, worn on the forehead of Aron, “takes away all the sin arising from holy things -offered in sacrifice- that may be impure”. It’s a way to bring attention to the risk of offering unclean objects or animals, not suitable items, to God (Exo 28:38). Mixing up pure with impure: something we need to be always alert of, especially when dealing with God
In other words, the frontlet helps Aaron take decisions in the matter of ritual purity through intellectual reflection.
There is another essential piece of clothing for Aron: the breastplate, the “choshen”, on which there are twelve stones, each of which represents one of the tribes of Israel. This is a symbol of the diversity, and the pluralism, of the Israelites. Whenever Aron enters the Shrine, he carries on his body the signs of the differences of the tribes of Israel. He literally takes these differences close to his heart.
Let us therefore summarise. How is Aron clothed? What do his clothings communicate to us? On the head the frontlet, to keep the difference between pure and impure in front of the eyes. On his heart, the people of Israel in their present reality: they are, as we know, pretty messy, chaotic and quarrelsome in the heart. The stories of the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness are indeed stories of quarrels and rebellions.
When Aron presents himself in front of God, he wears first clothes that embody the difference between pure and impure. He then puts the names of the people of Israel on his heart. At this point, he stands in front of God. The distinction between pure and impure is evident in his head. The messy reality of the life of people who mainly ignore this distinction is close to his heart.
And here’s the lesson in politics. Think to this image, Aron in front of God, dressed in the proper clothing. The distinction between pure and impure, always present in the forehead of Aron, is an intellectual distinction. The reality in which we live is far more chaotic.
“Abolition of private property!” It seems beautiful, inspiring, very pure. After all, what’s more unjust, more impure, than greed, desire to possess, private property? It’s a clear distinction, isn’t it?
But what happens when we drop this noble principle into the chaotic reality in which we human beings live? We know what happened. Bloody genocides of history ensued. China, Russia, Ukraine, Cambodia … The abolition of private property and individual selfishness seems so pure on an intellectual level but brings catastrophe and genocides when put into reality.
The same can be said for other high-sounding and very pure ideal statements, such as “return of refugees”. Can we imagine what would happen in Israel if was put into practice this principle, advocated by the very pure and idealistic organisation Amnesty International?
The end of Israel as a Jewish state. Massacres like in Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia. And for us in the Diaspora the loss of a place to find refuge when and if another Jeremy Corbyn or one of his allies comes to power, perhaps that lady wants to abolish security in front of Jewish schools)
Since the time of Adam and Eve, human beings have communicated through clothing since the dawn of humanity.
Aron’s clothes and vestments, so detailed and codified, communicate not only to us Jews, but to all humanity, something fundamental, something that we cannot ignore The danger of utopias and the need or the purest ideals to come to term with the messy reality we live in.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue 12 February 2022 11 Adar A’ 5782