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Before Adam sinned, he needed no clothes (bereishis 2:25). His physical body radiated Oh (light), faithfully expressing the light of the angelic soul within her. Once Adam sinned, however, his physical body lost that spiritual level and no longer fully expressed that inner light. the Pasuk describes how Adam and Chava suddenly realized their nakedness and became embarrassed, desiring to cover their bodies with clothes (Ibid. 3:7). What is the significance of their embarrassment and why was clothing the perfect remedy?
We become embarrassed when we believe that the way we perceive them on the outside is not an accurate reflection of who they are on the inside. It is the spiritual concept of bush (shame). When there is a disconnect between the inner self and its outer expression, the inner self is ashamed of being distorted, seen from the outside as something it is not. For example, if someone spreads a lie that you cheated on a test, you will feel embarrassed because there is now a false perception of who you are as a person. Say now it wasn’t a lie and you did cheat: You would still be embarrassed if people heard the truth because you would know deep down that you are better than how you acted and how people perceive you now.
We wear clothes because our bodies, in their current low form, are a source of embarrassment. We are souls – holy angelic beings – and yet our appearance in this world is that of physical beings with bodies hardly different from animals. For those who understand who and what they really are, it is embarrassing to be seen as anything other than an absolutely spiritual and transcendent being. It is the ultimate rupture between the inner self and the outer self.
The natural response to shame is the desire to hide. We feel the need to escape the crime scene of this misrepresentation and misperception. When Adam and Chava realized their nudity, their first instinct was to grab some fig leaves and hide their bodies. Hashem responded by making them clothes of Oh – spelled this time with a Yes instead of one alephthe word does not mean light but skin (Ibid. 21).
Clothing can serve two simultaneous purposes: it can hide the embarrassment of our inner light no longer shining through our physical bodies, and in doing so, it can also cover us with dignity. With our shame more visible, our Tzelem Elokim is what remains. We use these clothes to reflect who we really are. So, the thing we are looking for in our moment of failure and embarrassment is the way to overcome our problem. That is why Kohanim are required to wear such beautiful clothes, allowing the physical body to reflect the dignity and grandeur of the true self. Hashem covered Adam and Chava with Oh (clothes) so they can raise it up and reveal their true Oh (light).
The potential of clothes
Like all things in this world, clothes have enormous potential when used correctly; however, it can also be corrupted and misused. When used correctly, clothing lessens the shame of our physical body and helps us express our higher and worthy selves in the world. When used improperly, clothing can hide our spiritual core and present us as completely physical beings.
This idea is expressed in the Hebrew word for clothes, begged, which is made up of the letters beis, gimmeland dalet. In the Hebrew alphabet, these three letters immediately follow the letter aleph, the letter that represents the spiritual root, the soul. If used correctly, a begged can faithfully express our soul in the world. But the letters of begged also spell bogged down, which means traitor, because our clothes can betray our true inner selves. A traitor adopts a false exterior that does not reflect his true identity. When clothes distort who we really are, our inner selves are betrayed.
Another word for clothes is levouchewhich can also be read as “lo bosh(not embarrassed). Clothing has the potential to eliminate our embarrassment, but only when used correctly. When the garment becomes the garment itself, the garment does nothing to remedy our existential embarrassment.
Me’il is yet another Hebrew word for garment, referring to an outer coat. It shares the same root as the word me’ilahwhich refers to the prohibition of stealing or profiting from kodshim (consecrated objects for use in the Holy Temple). The ban on me’ilah is to take what is kadosh – elevated and belonging to Hashem – and lower it to a state of cholesterol, the banal. Just as it is problematic to misuse consecrated objects, it is problematic to misuse a garment intended to help us uplift.
One of the most misunderstood ideas in Judaism is the concept of tznius, most often translated as modesty. This is especially true when it comes to women. Many think that tznius means to hide and that the ideal is not to be seen. There is, however, an infinitely deeper approach tznius.
Physical beauty is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a vessel with the potential to be used for good or evil. While our physical body is immensely precious, our true self is our neshama – our soul, our inner spirit, our highest consciousness. Our inner world, our thoughts, our ideas, our choices, our beliefs, middos, and emotions are the deepest and most authentic parts of ourselves. True beauty is when the physical serves as a vessel that expresses that true inner self in the world.
The focus should always be on inner beauty as ikar, the main thing. The goal of tznius is not to be hidden. It is to be revealed! Tznius shifts attention from external trappings to the neshamathe core which is the source of true beauty.