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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tetzaveh: Clothes Make the Tween!

Not too long ago, my sixth-grade daughter was promoted at her ballet school, and after her first day in her new class, she came home asking for "ballet shorts."

Now when I took ballet, the standard uniform was leotard, tights, and slippers; but I've been around present-day dance-school dressing rooms often enough to know that ballet shorts are kind of these skimpy bicycle shorts that girls wear over their dance clothes. As far as I can see, they serve no purpose other than to add a cool, layered look to a dancer's appearance.

According to my daughter, ballet shorts were essential now that she was in Ballet 4. All the Ballet 4 girls wore them, she told me; not only that, you needed to be in Ballet 4 before you were even allowed to wear them, so they were an honor as well as a desirable accessory.

I took my daughter to the local ballet shop and skeptically held the shorts up on their hanger. They were tiny, about the size of two washcloths stitched together, and at $20, they were pricey, considering that they didn't replace any garments but were just an add-on.

What would I do? Support this craving for what the other Ballet 4 girls had? Or use this as an opportunity to teach a lesson about the perils of peer pressure and the benefits of saving money whenever possible?

I think this dilemma provides an interesting counterpoint to this week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh. In previous verses, God gave instructions for how to build the Tabernacle. Now, God describes the garments required for Aaron and his sons, who will serve as "priests."

God says the purpose of these garments, which include a breastpiece, robe, tunic, headdress, and sash, is "dignity and adornment." Consequently, the people are to make them from colorful yarns, fine linen, and precious stones and metals. No detail is left out; there are even directions for how the items should be fastened.

At times, I've seen these demands as excessive and unnecessary. Why would priests need the finest fabrics, the most valuable jewels? After all, the Jewish people had just been released from slavery and could finally stop fleeing for their lives. They were dusty, tired, and emotionally drained. Why did they need to work so hard on an outfit?

But lately, I've started to think that maybe these reasons are precisely why Aaron and his sons needed fancy duds. This was a community that needed to believe in its future, a group of people who wanted to know they were part of something bigger than themselves. As psychologists will tell you, sometimes attitude follows behavior. For the Jewish people back in the desert, creating priestly garments that demanded respect was likely one of the best ways to begin creating a strong and solid future.

Clothes are big source of stress for middle schoolers and parents. But discussions about clothing are well worth having. Why does a particular garment become a "must have"? Is it functional or decorative? Does it serve vanity, or a more important purpose? Does it provide status? Confidence? Encouragement? Help in accomplishing a goal? Something else?

Ultimately, I bought my daughter her ballet shorts. I understood that she had some trepidation about moving into a class of girls who had all been in Ballet 4 for several months. I saw that the shorts were a way for her to fit in with the group in a good way -- to feel that she belonged at this level and could blend in as a skilled dancer. I thought they would give her confidence and help her believe in herself.

I can only hope that Aaron felt as good in his new vestments as my daughter felt in hers.