The torn fab­ric of Purim

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - • ERICA BROWN The writer is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity and direc­tor of its May­berg Cen­ter for Jewish Ed­u­ca­tion and Lead­er­ship. Her lat­est book, from which this es­say has been in part ex­cerpted, is The Book of Es­ther: Power, Fat

‘Fash­ion is the ar­mor to sur­vive the re­al­ity of ev­ery­day life,” quipped the fa­mous fash­ion photograph­er Bill Cun­ning­ham. He walked the streets of New York City, pho­tograph­ing trends that he saw ev­ery day, be­liev­ing that what peo­ple wear mir­rors the times in which they live. We pick clothes to pro­tect us but mostly to ac­com­plish the dual, para­dox­i­cal role of re­veal­ing our iden­ti­ties and con­ceal­ing them.

Cloth­ing in the bib­li­cal Book of Es­ther plays much the same role. It mir­rors the times in which the Jews lived, their dra­matic story wo­ven into fab­ric. Our first men­tion of cloth­ing com­bines both the tear­ing of cloth­ing upon con­fronting tragedy and the wear­ing of sack­cloth to that same end.

“When Mordechai learned all that had hap­pened, Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sack­cloth and ashes. He went through the city, cry­ing out loudly and bit­terly” (Es­ther, 4:1). When a courtier ex­changes one set of clothes for an­other, it’s a pub­lic in­di­ca­tion that some­thing has shifted that re­quires recog­ni­tion and ac­tion. The ar­mor of cloth­ing is ex­changed to sig­nal vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Tear­ing cloth­ing has a long his­tory in the He­brew Bi­ble. In the Joseph nar­ra­tives, we find mul­ti­ple ex­am­ples. When Joseph was alone in Potiphar’s house, he re­jected the ad­vances of Potiphar’s wife, but, “She caught hold of him by his gar­ment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his gar­ment in her hand and got away and fled out­side” (Ge­n­e­sis 39:12). The torn gar­ment served as the false wit­ness to a lie.

This will hap­pen twice more. Joseph’s older half-brother re­turned to the scene of sib­ling crime but could not find Joseph in the pit. “Now Reuben re­turned to the pit, and be­hold, Joseph was not in the pit; so he tore his gar­ments” (Ge­n­e­sis 37:29). Iron­i­cally, Reuben, along with his broth­ers, ripped a gar­ment one more time when a sil­ver goblet was found in poor Ben­jamin’s sack. “Then they tore their clothes, and when each man loaded his don­key, they re­turned to the city (Ge­n­e­sis 44:13).” All of th­ese are tears of de­ceit.

There are also tears of truth. When King Saul seized Sa­muel’s robe in a des­per­ate at­tempt to hold onto his men­tor, Sa­muel tore it, a sign that the King’s po­si­tion would be ripped apart from him for Saul’s de­ceit. “As Sa­muel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore” (1 Sa­muel 15:27).

IN AN­OTHER Saul story, a torn gar­ment would once again tell a painful truth to this tragic fig­ure. King Saul was in hot pur­suit of his neme­sis, David, but when Saul slept, sur­rounded by mil­i­tary men who were also sound asleep, David taught Saul a les­son. In the night, David crept up from his camp, tore Saul’s gar­ments as ev­i­dence that David had been there, and spared Saul’s life, “Then David arose and cut off the edge of Saul’s robe se­cretly.” (I Sa­muel 24:5).

When we turn back to the Megillah, we find that Mordechai’s tear tells an un­speak­able truth. True to its ef­fect, when the Jews in Shushan saw Mordechai in pub­lic in torn clothes made of sack­cloth, they also changed into sack­cloth. Es­ther, how­ever, did not put on sack­cloth. When she heard the dev­as­tat­ing news, she was up­set for the wrong rea­son: “…for the queen was greatly ag­i­tated. She sent cloth­ing for Mordechai to wear, so that he might take off his sack­cloth; but he re­fused” (Est. 4:4).

Es­ther, it seems, was not solely up­set about the de­cree. She was trou­bled that her un­cle wore the wrong clothes when ap­proach­ing the palace. It will take a stern talk­ing to from Mordechai to shift Es­ther’s pri­or­i­ties. But when she does, she wears roy­alty and courage, ris­ing from a beauty queen to hero­ine.

The Apocrypha con­tains a dif­fer­ent ac­count, one where cloth­ing is also sig­nif­i­cant. When Es­ther heard the news, she took off her royal rai­ment and prayed in­tensely, dress­ing and act­ing just like Mordechai and the Jews of Per­sia’s an­cient em­pire. “And laid away her glo­ri­ous ap­parel and put on the gar­ments of an­guish and mourn­ing: and in­stead of pre­cious oint­ments, she cov­ered her head with ashes and dung, and she hum­bled her body greatly, and all the places of her joy she filled with torn hair” (14:2).

Cloth­ing fi­nally acts as a cat­a­lyst for joy in our re­ver­sal story. Only when the peo­ple saw Mordechai in his new, mag­is­te­rial gar­ments did the city break out in mer­ri­ment. “Mordechai left the king’s pres­ence in royal robes of blue and white, with a mag­nif­i­cent crown of gold and a man­tle of fine linen and pur­ple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joy­ous cries. The Jews en­joyed light and glad­ness, hap­pi­ness and honor” (Est. 8:15-16).

Be­cause in our litur­gi­cal read­ing we re­peat the verse about our new­found hap­pi­ness, we risk ig­nor­ing the tex­tual and con­tex­tual con­nec­tion. Mordechai left the king’s pres­ence dressed as a new man. The peo­ple im­me­di­ately un­der­stood once more a truth told in fab­ric. They fi­nally achieved more than se­cu­rity; they now had sta­tus.

From a torn gar­ment to a royal one, Mordechai’s clothes told the story of our redemp­tion, a story we bless­edly keep telling.

Cloth­ing fi­nally acts as a cat­a­lyst for joy in our re­ver­sal story

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

CLOTH­ING STYLES through­out his­tory.

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