Kavana Fashion Trends 2020: Garments of Light!

Just out of curiosity, what have you been wearing lately?? 2020 has certainly changed the fashion industry! This week, I read a New York Times article entitled "Goodbye, Blazers; Hello, 'Coatigans,'" and learned a new phrase: "Mullet Pajamas" (which Urban Dictionary defines as "pajama pants worn with your regular shirt or top. Business on top, party on the bottom."). Besides being funny, these pandemic fashion trends illustrate that garments possess dual abilities: to reveal truths about our reality, and also to conceal and mislead.

Just out of curiosity, what have you been wearing lately?? 2020 has certainly changed the fashion industry! This week, I read a New York Times article entitled "Goodbye, Blazers; Hello, 'Coatigans,'" and learned a new phrase: "Mullet Pajamas" (which Urban Dictionary defines as "pajama pants worn with your regular shirt or top. Business on top, party on the bottom."). Besides being funny, these pandemic fashion trends illustrate that garments possess dual abilities: to reveal truths about our reality, and also to conceal and mislead.

Clothing features quite prominently in this week's Torah portion, Vayeshev, too.

  • Example 1: As the parasha opens, Jacob gives Joseph a striped coat, sometimes known as "the coat of many colors." Joseph interprets it (seemingly correctly) as a sign of love and favoritism. (See Gen. 37:3.)
  • Example 2: Joseph's brothers throw him in a pit and sell him to slave-traders. Meanwhile, they take the same distinct coat, dip it in the blood of an animal, and present it to his father Jacob, leaving him to draw from it the incorrect conclusion that Joseph has been torn apart by a wild beast. (See Gen. 37:31-33.)
  • Example 3: After being twice widowed by Judah's sons, Tamar is upset when Judah refuses to give her his 3rd son Shelah in marriage, thus putting her life on permanent hold. She takes agency, dressing as a prostitute and tricking Judah into sleeping with her; when she becomes pregnant, she uses his garments (seal, cord, and staff), which she had collected as collateral, to prove that he is the baby's father and she is in the right. (See Gen. 38:25.)
  • Example 4: Down in Egypt now, Joseph refuses the advances of Potiphar's wife. As he flees from her, she rips a piece of his garment and uses it as fake evidence to accuse him of assault. He ends up in prison. (See Gen. 39:11-19.)

As you can see, garments really do go both ways in the Torah portion - representing true emotions and circumstances (in examples 1 and 3), and also leading people to draw false conclusions (in examples 2 and 4).

The first garments mentioned in the Torah are the ones worn by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The first couple is expelled from the Garden for having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Just before they leave, God provides them with a gift of clothing: "And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them" (Gen. 3:21). The word for "skin" is "or," spelled with an ayin. In a clever word play, the Zohar (a foundational text of Jewish mysticism) swaps out the ayin for an alef, intuiting that before the expulsion from the garden, Adam and Eve were dressed in garments of light (Hebrew: "or" with an alef) -- that is, garments of celestial light, designed not only to protect them but to illuminate them and connect them to God and the cosmos.

When the Zohar imagines human beings clothed in light, it is consciously playing with an image from Psalms 104, which describes God as "oteh or kasalmah," "wrapped in a robe of light." God is quite the fashion trend-setter here!

Chanukah starts tomorrow night, and we will spend a lot of time over the eight subsequent nights looking at our candles and thinking about light. This week, the image of being dressed in light is rolling around in my head.

What if -- as we stand before the menorah each evening -- we imagine that the light we are bathed in really represents the garments of celestial light from the Garden of Eden, something pristine and primordial? What if these lights are our reflection of God's "robe of light," and through our candles, we get little glimpses of that divine light reflected right here in our world? What if we showed up to our next work-from-home meeting or Zoom event dressed not only in a "coatigan" or "pajama mullet," but additionally in garments of light, spreading the glow of Chanukah far and wide through our presence on the screen? What if we spent the eight days of Chanukah trying to look at all the other people we encounter (whether in person or through our screens) as though they, too, are robed in light?

What an opportunity that would be to uplift the holiday of Chanukah, and reveal a deep truth about ourselves and each other! (Although, if you want to try it with your pajama bottoms still on, I promise I won't tell!)

Wishing you a chag urim sameach - a happy Festival of Lights!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum