In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, the Israelites are given instructions in how to make the sacred garments that will be worn by the High Priest. More than half the portion is devoted to this detailed description. Each garment is to be made by skilled craftsmen and created out of the most beautiful and finest materials. These garments are clearly intended to imbue the high priest with the highest possible status. Today, our sacred Torah scrolls wear these garments, to imbue our Torah scrolls with the highest possible reverence.
Clothing sends a message. Why do some people pay a premium to purchase and wear designer clothing? They are trying to send a particular message to those who recognize that the clothing they wear is ‘designer’. Why do some schools have students wear a uniform? Because they are trying to prevent students from sending a message with the clothes they wear, in an effort to keep students focused on learning.
Sometimes, we dress in a way that reflects a special duty, or a particular job or event. For example, police officers and firefighters wear uniforms, and professional office workers wear suits. Graduates wear a cap and gown.
Clothing allows us to express ourselves externally, to put forth to the world a representation of who we are. However, clothing does not necessarily reflect who the wearer is on a deeper level. The ceremonial clothing worn by the High Priests reflected their high status, but it was no guarantee that the wearers of these fine garments possessed generous souls.
Beyond clothing, our outward appearance does not represent who we are inside, as anyone who has lived to middle age and beyond can attest. As we age, we look in the mirror and don’t recognize ourselves — we feel the same on the inside as we did when we were young, but the body that clothes our souls has changed. It can be a shock to feel the same and yet look so different.
Years ago, an old woman named Phyllis Mabel McCormick died in the geriatric ward of a small hospital in Scotland. This poem was found among her possessions:
What do you see, nurses, what do you see?
What are you thinking when you are looking at me?
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, (I do wish you’d try!)
Who seems not to notice the things that you do,
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe…
Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill…
Is that what you’re thinking? Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse; you are not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
as I do at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of ten… With a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who love one another,
A young girl of 16, with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at 20 – my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I’ve promised to keep.
At 25 now, I have young of my own,
Who need me to make a secure, happy home.
A woman of 30, my young now growing fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my man is beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At 50 once more, babies play around my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead;
I look at the future, I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing young of their own,
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old woman… And nature is cruel;
Tis jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigor depart,
There is now a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years … all too few, gone too fast,
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nurses, open and see,
Not a crabby old woman; look closer… See ME!!
Clothes do not really make the man. Skin does not really make the woman. Look within….
Peel back the covering layers and see people for who they truly are – see their souls.
… Open your eyes, nurses, open and see,
Not a crabby old woman; look closer … See ME.