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Parshat Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20-30:10; Ezekiel 43:10-27.

By Rabbi Simone Schicker

Rabbi Simone Schicker

I often find people come to me to express their belief that much of Torah is irrelevant in their life, that it is outdated. That Jews in the modern world, without a Mishkan or Temple, have little to learn from much of the Torah.

This week’s portion appears, at first glance, to be one of these sections. Tetzaveh discusses four main things: the eternal light, the priestly garments, ordination of the priests and the burning of incense. Yet, if we allow ourselves to delve deeper into the text, we can surprise ourselves by the depth of meaning we can discover.

In the discussion of the garments the priests are required to wear, we read, “You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs.” [Exodus 28:42] According to other verses of Torah, it was not common for men to wear breeches.

Rather, most people wore long robes or garments we may consider dresses today. The addition of the linen breeches by the priests was another layer of modesty being requested by God. In a time and place where the question of appropriate dress at work, school and play is constantly being questioned, our Torah has an important lesson to teach us.

Traditionally speaking, modesty is an important aspect of Jewish practice. I grew up being told that it was disrespectful in temple for my shoulders to be bare, and it is expected in many of our congregations that people dress with a certain level of modesty in services.

This modesty is interpreted differently in various congregations but often extends to wearing a kippah on the bimah, in the sanctuary or anytime one is in the temple or synagogue building.

These expectations by the community are often expressed differently based on whether one identifies as male or female. Yet, we also recognize that for many the policing of dress is complicated, especially regarding policy and our youth.

More and more we have seen articles come out that the dress code policies in schools (and then taken on by congregations) are disproportionately about what young female identified individuals may or may not wear.

We write policy that says a skirt or shorts must pass their fingertips or that shirts must have straps that are at least three fingers wide. Things may not be too tight, and often an explanation of what pants are allowed is included.

All these things are subjective and may cause young female-identified individuals to feel there is something wrong with their bodies, which there is not. We are all made in God’s image according to Genesis 1:27.

What can we learn then from this week’s portion? We can note that we need to be careful of our words and actions. That one’s clothing choices need to be appropriate for the setting, but what is appropriate for one person may be completely wrong for another.

That we need to teach ourselves not to judge others based on their appearance but rather on their merits. We can and should have community expectations, but we must also recognize that those expectations must be shared in a way that is compassionate and caring, not judgmental or demeaning.

Rabbi Simone Schicker is rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel in Kalamazoo.