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Finding Identity Through Clothing

There is a joy in shared identity, like-minded people cheering on their sports team or political party or working together in their community. People very much want to be part of a larger group. They do this, in no small part, through visual display – through our possessions, tattoos, cars and homes. But most importantly, we use clothes as the single clearest self-identifier.

The Torah has a word for identity, too, though it is only found by looking at context. The word beged literally means “clothing.” But when we look at the way the word is used in the text, a beged is not a mere garment or loincloth, tunic or veil (all those words also exist in the Torah). Instead, it is a word that specifically and always is used to denote a person’s identity, their sense of belonging, their role in society. Indeed, the word, like self-identification in any way, is necessarily aspirational – so instead of describing a person in terms of what they are now, beged is used to tell us what they plan to be in the future.

The first time the word beged is found is when Rivkah (Rebekkah) becomes engaged to Isaac and Avraham’s servant gives her the engagement present: “The servant brought out objects of silver and gold, and begadim [the plural form of beged], and gave them to Rivkah.” She is transitioning from a single girl to a married woman, and so the clothes become a symbol of transformation.

As the first time beged is used it tells us of Rivka’s change in status, it is not surprising that she in turn uses her son’s clothes the same way. The word next appears in the text when Rivka seeks to make Yaakov (Jacob) into the first-born, in place of Esau. “Rivkah then took the best begadim of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Yaakov put them on.” There is deception in this act, but the deception was secondary to the key goal, which was to transform Yaakov into the oldest son, to be the receiver of the blessing. The purpose of the beged that Yaakov wears is to aspire for the office and status of his older brother. He, too, is using begadim as a means to seek a change in identity.

Beged appears again when Yaakov is on the run from his angry older brother. Yaakov sleeps and dreams, and when he wakes, he strikes a bargain with G-d:

Yaakov then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and beged to wear… then if I return safe to my father’s house— YKVK shall be my God.

The key here is that Yaakov does not ask for clothing (the word simla is a functional garment), but instead asks specifically for beged. Why? Because Yaakov is alone and on the run. He is lonely and the future is entirely unknown.

What Yaakov is asking for is for G-d to give him not merely clothes on his back, but an identity he can cling to. The only identification Yaakov had adopted in the past was his brother Esau’s, and that clearly was not a long-term fit. So Yaakov is asking G-d for Yaakov’s own connection going forward, for a purpose to his existence.

This is essential for Yaakov, because he was going into Lavan’s house, and his preservation of his identity was a substantial concern: would he assimilate and remain, or keep his clear sense of self and return to his father’s house? Note that he is not asking for an identity as a member of a group – but instead he is requesting an identity that is intertwined with a relationship with G-d. Yaakov teaches us that great men do not need or even seek to be part of a herd. They still require an identity, but they are content to receive it from just one being, G-d Himself.

The Jewish message from this is also clear: ultimately, while we may blend in with other Jews, the key goal of the way in which we dress is to aspire for a relationship with G-d.

In this, Yaakov foreshadows the priestly garments, described at length later in the Torah. As and when the priests wore their garments, they owned the identity that came with the garments: when dressed accordingly, the men and their office were one and the same. The begadim of the priests was more than a mere uniform; it was all about seeking the same relationship that Yaakov had. After all, it was Yaakov in his dream who first saw the ladder to and from heaven that represented the key function of the tabernacle: to connect heaven and earth, G-d and man.

We can see later in the text how this meaning of beged, as identity, is reinforced. “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his begadim.” Why? Because Reuven was the first-born, and his job was to take care of his own brothers. When he failed at this job, then his identity, his raison d’etre, his very self-perception, was damaged. It is notable that, just a few verses later when Yaakov mourns Joseph, Yaakov rips his simla, his garments. But he does not rip begadim – because ripping clothing is a sign of mourning and loss, but ripping begadim signifies an existential change in a person. Yaakov lost a son, but unlike with Reuven, Yaakovs’s very identity had not been threatened.

Joshua and Caleb also rip their begadim, at the moment they realize that the people they were supposed to lead and protect, are lost: “And they said to one another, “Let us head back for Egypt… And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, of those who had scouted the land, ripped their begadim.” Like Reuven, these leaders realize that their very identity had been compromised because they were leaders who failed to successfully lead. Their identity, their beged, was damaged.

Beged is also found in the Torah with the episode between Tamar and Yehudah. He takes her for a prostitute, and procures her services accordingly. The relevant piece of this story is that Tamar does not put on the beged of a woman for hire.

So she took off her widow’s begadim, covered her face with a veil and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife.

She does not, unlike Yaakov’s use of Esau’s clothes, use the beged to deceive. Instead, she merely anonymizes herself, becoming nameless. Which is why, at the end of the episode, “Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow’s begadim.”

So when Tamar confronts Yehudah, she does it outside of her identity and her status. She does not wish to be a widow; she wanted Yehudah to fulfill his promise and give her Shelah to be her husband.

Beged is also consistently and widely used with the commandments regarding the spiritual malady known as tzaraas (popularly mistranslated as “leprosy”). The visible symptoms of tzaraas can be seen in one’s begadim. And I think the reason why this word, instead of simla is used, is because being plagued in this manner is a direct result of harming another person, either through words or deeds. And, as we have seen throughout the Torah, seeking to harm another is the antithesis of Torah Judaism, which commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a core commandment. As such, a person who has tzaraas is endangering his identity as a Jew, as a partner to G-d. Which is why his begadim show the signs, a warning to change and grow beyond harming others. A person with tzaraas cannot elevate himself, cannot connect to G-d. Which in turn is a fundamental threat to his identity, as shown in the blemish on his begadim.

There is one verse that sums up the meaning of a beged better than any other:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their begadim throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. (Num. 15:38)

This is the only reference to a beged that all Jewish males wear for all time. As such, the garment refers to a national identity, something that we all look at regularly and that makes us Jewish. Why, of all things, this garment?

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all G-d’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.

Because the “blue” reminds us of the skies, a reminder of the core Jewish mission, that when we look toward our more “animalistic” parts, we are reminded to look upward instead, and always seek to connect the waters below to the waters above, adding holiness to this world.

And the word translated as “corner” has a more usual meaning in the Torah: wings, just like the wings of birds and of the angels over the ark of the covenant. Wings remind us that we are meant, at least spiritually, to always seek to grow upward, to fly and connect to the heavens. Thus, the clothing we wear that reminds us of all things is rightfully a beged, an identifying garment. We Jews are commanded to constantly remember that we must always keep an eye on our higher purpose.

It seems, then, that Yaakov got his wish. G-d provided Yaakov with his beged, his identity, and we, in turn, wear a divinely-gifted beged as well, connecting both to Yaakov’s desire to belong in a relationship with G-d, and to the priests and their specific garments when they served in G-d’s house.

Beged vs. Simla (a normal garment)

To better understand the text, we need to also note the pivotal examples when the word beged is not used in the text, and why. In addition to Yaakov’s ripping of clothes, the garment that covers Noach after his naked and drunken exposure is a simla, not a beged. When Joseph is pulled from the dungeon to meet Pharoah and interpret his dreams, the text tells us: “Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his simla, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” They give him clean simla, because his status had not changed. But following his meeting with Pharaoh, Joseph receives a new identity: “And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in begadim of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.”

The clothing of the defeated captive woman whom a soldier chooses to marry is similarly called a simla, because the clothing, while it identified her status, was not her aspiration – nobody wants to be in the ignominious and powerless position of war captive.

When we leave Egypt and G-d tells us to take the gold, silver and clothing of the Egyptians (an echo of the engagement present that Rivkah receives, telling her that she was to be married), the word is simla instead of the begadim that Rivkah received. The reason is simple enough: while both are clothing, we were not adopting the identity of the Egyptians. Instead we were merely taking their wealth.

G-d even promises to take care of those in need: “[G-d] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and simla.” Why not begadim, as G-d did with Yaakov when he sought food and clothing? Because after the Torah is given, a Jewish identity is available to everyone through the text, and even through the Jewish people. But Yaakov had no Torah text, and he was utterly alone, so his clothing was more than merely functional. G-d gives people what they need. The normal stranger needs food and clothing, but Yaakov needed more than that in order to grow his relationship with G-d. He needed an identity.

The very last example of any word for clothing is found in this verse:

So he has made up charges, saying, ‘I did not find your daughter a virgin.’ But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity!” And they shall spread out the simla before the elders of the town.

As we have said, a simla is a functional garment, but not one that identifies status, office or aspirations. The word simla is found both in this last verse and in the first use (Noach’s sons covering him up with a simla) to provide basic functionality, coverage of nakedness and dignity.

P.S. A very popular explanation of the meaning of the word beged ties it to the word for “deceive.” The textual use of the word used this way is:

If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he beged with her.

It is understandable why this could be translated as deception, but I think the examples we have offered suggests a convincing alternative – that this verse suggests that the master gave her an identity – so he is forbidden to demote her from that office if he ends up changing his mind about staying with her. The giving of an identity is a gift that cannot be taken away without damages and consequences, so she must freed – instead of sold – in the event that her master changes his mind.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder, and @eliyahumasinter work!]

Comments are welcome!

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