“Write down 5 of your identities”, asked the speaker, “the first 5 that come to mind”.
What shall I write? What makes me who I am?
I scribble one, then two, then think. 5 is surely not enough to describe who I am, rebels the student in me, contemplating to be creative. What about 6 or 7? He probably expects us to write nationality, religion, race, socioeconomic background but what about profession or hobby or… As I’m debating with myself, I hear the speaker instructing the group to erase 2 of the 5. Then erase another 2. What’s left??
I am one of more than 300 educators in a regional in-service day and can easily hide, but the question remains with me: is identity a prism or is there a core? What is superficial and what is critical about who we are?
The new moon of these days welcomes the month of Adar (Adar II, for this is a leap year in the Jewish calendar too), and in two weeks, it’s going to be Purim. The simple story – stupid king, pretty queen, smart uncle, evil minister – gets more and more complicated the more one reads it. Almost nothing makes sense, and nothing is quite the way it seems.
It’s no wonder then, that one of the customs of this holiday is to dress-up. It is us exprloing different layers of who we are, playing with an opportunity to take on a new identity, if only for the day.
What to be??
The last Torah portion in the Book of Exodus also deals with clothing, and this time, it’s the beautiful priestly garments with their many rules and deep symbolism. There are other stories which center around clothing: Jacob, dressed like Esau trying to fool his father to get the blessing; Joseph, first with his multi-colored striped coat, then with his master wife ripping his shirt, then facing his brothers, all decked out like an Egyptian; Tamar, who dressed up to meet Judah; and of course, Esther, about whom the text explicitly says that she “wore her royal dress to go to the king” (5:1) and I wonder, why specify that? Was she usually hanging around the palace in her sweats and jeans?? And there are more.
In addition, clothing can have a mitzvah (putting on tzitzit, fringes on a four cornered garments) and be affected by tzara’at, a strange Biblical skin condition that erroneously is translated as leprosy but can touch houses and clothes.
A lot can be learned from the first time something appears in the Torah (and much more in Meir Shalev’s book “Resheet” / Beginnings). The first time we hear about clothing is in the Garden of Eden, when the first humans discovered their nakedness after disobeying G-d. Their first “suits” were made for them by G-d Himself. Ever since, dressing – and undressing – has become related to getting near and far from G-d.
If so, it may be no wonder that this is what the Torah chooses to close this book. The Book of Exodus is the story of creating a People, of building a congregation, and yet in the end, it’s what we do as individual makes the community we’re in. It ‘winks’ to our early beginnings and reminds us that where there is a break, or a “tear” if you will, that a seem-line can be stitched and that amends can be made.
The Hebrew word for clothing is begged, which is made of three consecutive letters (bet, gimel, dalet) and means “cover”, “outer appearance”. Thus, the same root is used to create the word for garment (beged), and also – traitor, being unfaithful (bodeg, bgida). The same thing can be one and its opposite. Are we our outside or inside, and are these two, the same?
The month of Adar usually corresponds to the zodiac Pisces sign: two fish, one of the top and one below, in two directions, that go opposite from each other, yet make one picture. This is maybe what Purim and this season is – sometimes almost forcefully we want things to make sense, but they don’t. Life is made of contradictions and opposites and impossible stretches. In the end, not only I wrote more than the “5” identities instructed, I didn’t erase any. There is just too much color to give up any.