The Body Beautiful
“You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor.” (28:2)
“The body is the most natural thing in the world. If you’ve got a nice body, why not show it off? These religious prudes think the body is dirty. They’re ashamed of it. They’re always trying to make the world dreary and gray with their black uniforms.”
Why are religious people so scrupulous about covering their bodies?
Imagine you have a priceless diamond.
Would you take it out into the street in your hand? I don’t think so. You’d put in plush lined jewel case. Our body is a precious possession. It is the abode of the soul in this world. To honor it we keep it away from the eyes of the world, wrapping it in the plush lining of clothing.
The more holy something is, the more it requires covering.
The holiest place on earth was the kodesh kadoshim, the Holy-of-Holies in the Beit HaMikdash (HolyTemple). It was also the most covered place in the world. It was sequestered in the very center of the Temple. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, would the Kohen Gadol enter there.
The body is not only a miraculous piece of work, but it is also one of the holiest things in this world.
Fine. So why didn’t Adam and Eve wear clothes?
One of the enduring icons of the last millennium is Neil Armstrong’s portrait of Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon. You could tell it was Aldrin because he had his name neatly embroidered on his spacesuit. However, no one actually thought that this bulbous white bi-ped was Aldrin. It was perfectly clear to everyone that when the suit said ‘Aldrin’, it meant that Aldrin was inside the suit.
Before Adam and Eve sinned, it was perfectly clear that the function of the human body was to be a ‘spacesuit’ for the soul to exist in this world. For just as a human being can exist in the vacuum of space for but a few short moments before his blood boils from the lack of pressure, so too the soul needs a body to perform its work in this lower world.
Before the first Man and Woman ate from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil it was not possible to think that the body was the essence of the person. It was clear that the body was just a way to exist in this world. However, when Adam and Chava ate from the fruit, this changed.
The name of the tree of whose fruit they ate was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the Torah, knowledge always connotes “connection”. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they caused a connection, a mixing of good and evil.
Goodis the essence and purpose of this world: “And G-d saw that it was good.” The possibility of Evil exists only as a space to allow freedom of choice. Evil is not the essence of this world. When Adam and Chava ate from the tree they caused a “knowledge”, a mixing, of Good and Evil. They made it possible to mistake Evil for Good — to mistake non-essence for essence. Thus it became possible for man to confuse, to mix up the essence of a person — his soul — with his ‘spacesuit’ — the body.
In order to de-emphasize the body and re-emphasize that the essence of the human being is his soul, G-d made garments for Man so that the body’s importance should not be over-emphasized.
However, there’s one place where the body needs no covering — the face. The Hebrew word for face is panim, which is spelled identically with another Hebrew word, “p’nim” — which means “inside”. The face is the one place in the body where you can see the soul bursting through skin and tissue. The face needs no covering, for the soul shines through it as it always did.
- Sources: Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, Rabbi Zev Leff, Rabbi Mordechai Perlman