Like when it’s your wedding veil. Or your baby’s blanket. Or a departed beloved’s shirt. Or your great-grandmother’s challah cover. The whole world, for just a moment, is wrapped up in that piece of fabric.
Digging into the Torah gets this, too. For example, in this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, we read, “They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me; they therefore shall receive the gold, the blue, purple and crimson yarns..” (Ex 28:4-5)
At this point, Moses is getting instructions on how to build a new class of people within the community: the priests. They would be Aaron and his sons, and the descendants of Aaron forever. This chapter goes into extraordinary detail about the clothes Aaron and his sons would wear. The text lays out the weaving patterns, the breastpieces, the jewels, the robes, the hems of gold bells and pomegranates, the hat,the tunic, the headdress…everything.
At first, however, we learn which colors to use: gold, blue, purple and crimson. Why these colors? What do they mean?
I see the whole world in those colors. The gold/yellow is the light of creation. The blue is the color the heavens. The purple mountains cover the earth, and the red is the earth itself. In one piece of cloth, the priestly clothes replicate Creation.
Just as colored cloth can contain the whole world, the whole world can hide behind a piece of cloth, too. If we need to, we hide behind masks, and sometimes, the more colorful, the better, deflecting attention from what’s being hidden. This weekend is Purim, and after one gets past the colorful celebration, the partying, the imbibing (Talmud tells us to drink enough so that we can’t discern between the names of Haman and Mordechai …villain and hero, respectively)…we are confronted with the holiday’s core question of identity.
Everyone hides behind something in this story, especially Esther. She doesn’t tell King Ahashuerus that she is Jewish, as he’s crowd-sourcing for a new Queen. She keeps this hidden throughout most of the story, until her cousin Mordechai tells her of the plot that Haman is hatching to kill all the Jews in Shushan. Now, she must step forward, literally, out of the shadows and confront her husband the King with the news that he’s married to a Jew. To come before the King unbidden is to risk her life, but she takes off her mask and tells the King who she is and what she knows, It works out well; the Jewish community is saved, Haman is punished, and the party begins.
Colors make us stand out, and make us stand up. We rally ’round the red, white and blue; it’s our national identity. We proudly hold the rainbow flag in a parade, no longer hiding but using the colors to announce to the world who we are, or whom we support. We may wear the colors of the Women of the Wall on our tallitot (prayer shawls), coming out from behind the shadows to take our places as equals in the ritual life of our Jewish community. Each of these cloths represent the world to us…our vitality, our identity, our equality, our very essences. And isn’t that what Creation was about?