Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Cover by Rabbi Chaim Poupko


Great comedians often make very astute observations. For instance, one famous comedian imagined what it would have been like had there been a coin-toss at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, as there is at the beginning of a football game. Clearly, the colonists won the coin toss, as that provides the only explanation as to how the colonists managed to wear the camouflage they wanted and ambush the British as they pleased, while the British soldiers remained out in the open in their bright red uniforms.

The British weren’t the only ones in history to be over-dressed for battle. At the beginning of World War I, the French army was still wearing its stylish red pants and blue coats that it had been wearing for centuries. When the minister of defense attempted to change the uniforms, he was rebuffed with the assertion that “red trousers are France!” With the severe losses the French army suffered during the war, naturally their uniform was changed.

The mistake of these two armies is related to a key lesson that emerges from this week’s Torah reading. Parashat Tetzaveh describes at length the uniform that the Kohanim wore during their service in the Mishkan. Moshe is commanded “VeAsita Vigdei Kodesh LeAharon Achicha LeChavod ULeTifaret” “and you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother for honor and beauty” (Shemot 28:2).

In other words, the primary function of the clothing that the Kohanim wore was to bring honor and beauty to their service. That’s why Ramban suggests that the clothing the Kohanim wore was characteristic of royal garments. In this light, clothing can be understood as a means of fostering a certain attitude or atmosphere. They are a means to achieve a certain goal, but they are not the goal in and of themselves. This was the mistake of those armies who chose fashion over function for their uniforms. Instead of looking at the function of their clothing – and whether it was serving a greater purpose – they looked at their clothing and its style as a goal in and of itself.

Clothing is crucially important even outside service in the Mishkan. It represents how we project ourselves to those around us. While no one should be judged strictly by what they wear, it would be a mistake to ignore the messages we convey to others by our clothing. Just as the uniform of the Kohanim projected honor and beauty, what we wear projects our values and our attitude towards ours surroundings. The aphorism “don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t apply here. Instead, one’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner attitude. It’s the reverse of Rabban Gamliel’s standard by which he measured people. He insisted that one should be “Tocho KeBaro” – one’s inner sincerity should match his outer deeds and words. We learn the reverse from the clothing of the Kohanim, that the way one projects him or herself on the outside should match what he or she believes in the inside. 

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