Friday, March 27, 2009

Vayikra 5769: Offerings and Giftings.

This week we begin the book of Leviticus. A friend of mine who coordinates Lay led Torah discussions at our minyan every Saturday morning has often noted that this is the hardest book of Torah to find discussion topics for. His point is well taken: Like water in the Sinai, the easily interpreted stories are few and far between in this sefer. Leviticus is mostly mitzvot, various laws centering on the priestly duties. This week starts with the instruction for various types of sacrifices
1. And the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of the cattle, of the herd, and of the flock. 3. If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord.
10. And if his offering is of the flocks, namely, of the sheep, or of the goats, for a burnt sacrifice; he shall bring a male without blemish.
14. And if the burnt sacrifice for his offering to the Lord is of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves, or of young pigeons.[Leviticus 1]
1. And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense on it;[Leviticus 2]

In the text, there is a successive list of procedures from the most to the least expensive offerings: Livestock, poultry, doves and pigeons, and finally flour. As contemporary Jews, such things still present us with issues of course since there are no burnt sacrifices anymore. This is of course not a new issue. On the 9th of Av in 70CE, the second temple was destroyed and with it any possibility of Temple sacrifices. Much of parshat Vayikra and the first few chapters of the book of Leviticus have been obsolete for 1900 years. Jews from the time of the destruction of the temple have been dealing with that issue.
One breakaway group of Jews, Christianity, was critical of the whole temple system to begin with. The aggadah of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers, those who converted money into one of the permitted sacrifices above is only one example of the polemic against that system. The money changers were an integral part of the system, mandated by Torah to handle the problems of transporting animals far distances. Yet these merchants often abused their position by severely overcharging visitors, most especially poor women, to the temple for the necessary sacrifices.
A great rabbinic mind also got angry about the money changers, but he did something different.
It once happened in Jerusalem that the price of a pair of doves rose to a golden denar. said R. Simeon b. Gamaliel, by this sanctuary, I shall not go to sleep to-night before they cost but a [silver] denar! [K'ritot 8a]
Simeon B. Gamaliel then made a ruling that destroyed the demand for doves used for sacrifices, killing the market, the price of a pair of birds then dropped to quarter of a [silver] denar each.
Such abuses were only one problem for the circle which Shimon b. Gamaliel belonged to. Another was far more problematic. What to do when you no longer have somewhere to give an offering? Their answer, which forms a large basis of the Talmud, is to transform the offerings into something else. Elements found in the Talmud had already existed for centuries. Much were popular practice, as many found it so difficult to get to the Temple to give those offerings. Prayer, home ritual, charity, and observance of the laws of Torah replaced the Temple sacrifices.
As early as the Prophets, the actual act of giving sacrifices had its critics:
11. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? said the Lord; I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of male goats.[Isaiah 1]
19. Hear, O earth; behold, I will bring evil upon this people, the fruit of their thoughts, because they have not listened to my words, nor to my Torah, but have rejected it. 20. To what purpose comes to me incense from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices sweet to me. [Jeremiah 6]

The problem is not the sacrifice, but the intention it was given with, and the actions that follow it. Isaiah and Jeremiah, along with Asaph in Psalm 50, all point to the idea that God doesn’t want a sacrifice as some automatic, emotionless thing. One needs to follow the laws and ethics of Torah as well. The old cliché comes to mind: it's the thought that counts. It's the heartfelt intention of giving the gift to God, the kavvanah that is as important as the offering itself.
I've been thinking a lot about this idea of gifting in my own life, and in a far more practical way. My sweetheart and I are serious gift givers, not just to each other but to everyone around us. We do often share our love with other in little things we give each other. I might give her one half of a his and hers matching set of pins for example. She gives me some expensive soap, I give her some books on biblical Hebrew. Some things cost nothing, and a gift comes from listening to the other after a very bad day, sometimes followed by a well needed neck rub. But we also get things for others. She always brings thing back to her office from her visits with me. When she met my family she brought gifts for my nieces and nephew. All of which was received with wide eyes of appreciation. When I am with my nephew, the most wonder gift I can give costs as much as a sheet of paper. I’ll fold him a paper airplane and he is thrilled beyond belief. The glow on his face is worth every second needed to fold that simple white sheet.
I think it is easy to confuse an offering with a bribe. A bribe has a goal in giving the gift. An offering's only goal is to delight someone else. The delight of seeing someone delight in something is a high I think Sweetie and I would agree is like no other. It's not about the cost, but the personal value of connection and sharing the joy. The pagan gods were bribed for favors. In that we are different. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu wasn't looking for bribes, but the message “I love you.” As the prophets very often remind everyone, they are offering God's own creation and property to God – not much of a bribe. It’s a lot like bribing a king with his own money. It is the actions and intentions that count in the offering. God wants to hear a heartfelt “I love you” by following mitzvot in Torah. If one sings a song to the king, that’s a far more precious gift, coming from the heart. Since we cannot make a sacrifice any more, we sing Ashrei and Psalm 145. Sweetie and I say “I love you” with our little gifts and things we do for each other, and in that way we strengthen our relationship by delighting and acknowledging one another. God wants to be in the relationship with us. Offerings are about making good relationships, not about goals and outcomes.
God gave a sliding scale of offerings not that one could impress with the offerings but one could do the act of giving in a way that allowed everyone to participate. That was what got Shimon b. Gamaliel and others so upset. The greedy money changers prevented poor women from being in a relationship with God. Today we have to think differently of course. Charity is one form of offering to God, by making sure someone else can continue surviving. Prayer and home ritual have transformed the Temple service into something family and community find themselves in relationship to God and to each other. Vayikra may be obsolete in many ways, but under the surface, one can learn a lot about giving.

So, how do you give?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Vayakhel-Peukedei 5769: Shabbos

This week we have Moses first giving the instructions for creating the Mishkan he learned on Sinai, employing the people to help in the construction with Betzalel as lead craftsman and architect. The people enthusiastically help out in its construction, so much so Betzalel has to ask for the donations to stop. When all the pieces are done Moses puts the components together for the first time, and the cloud of glory covers the Mishkan.

This is the end of the book of Exodus and, the last of my pieces on Shabbat for a while. Leviticus will take up other matters. Yet here is the first time Moses speaks the mitzvah of Shabbat, and includes in it a specific prohibition.

1. And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of Israel together, and said to them, These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. 2. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work in it shall be put to death. 3. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day. (Ex 35:1-3)

In Torah and Tanach, we have very few specific prohibitions noting what kind of work is banned on the Sabbath. In Exodus 16, we are told not to collect Manna on the Sabbath day, to stay home, and to cook for Shabbat the previous day. Elsewhere in Tanach we have the prophets complaining about specific transgressions of the Sabbath, which by implication must have already been established. In Jeremiah 17:22 we have the prohibition against carrying things out of a house, in Amos and Nehemiah 13 lists several involving commerce:

15. In those days I saw in Judah men treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading them on asses; and also wine, grapes, and figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day; and I warned them on the day when they sold food.16. Men of Tyre, who lived there, brought fish, and all kinds of ware, and sold on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, and in Jerusalem.17. Then I confronted the nobles of Judah, and said to them, What evil thing is this that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day?

Using a hermeneutic principle called parat u’kalal on this passage, the Rabbis of the Mishnah determined what other prohibitions of work would not be allowed on the Sabbath. Our specific case of lighting a fire in the week’s portion, and the instructions for all things used to make the Mishkan that follow that prohibition, would imply that the activities that follow are also prohibited on the Sabbath. Given this logic, the rabbis go on to list thirty nine prohibitions

Mishnah. The primary labors are forty less one, [viz.:] sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, the making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying [knotting] and untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, capturing a deer, slaughtering, or flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping it [of its hair], cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters [over the erasure], building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, [and] carrying out from one domain to another: these are the forty primary labors less one.(M. Shabbat 7:2)

For observing the positive commandment of Shabbat there seems to be a lot of negative provisions. And for most except for a small percentage of Jews, it is impossible to follow these rules as closely as the rabbis. My own considerations that my synagogue is about ten miles from my own home put it in perspective. If I followed the rule about travel, and particularly lighting the fires that run the combustion engine in my car, I would never be able to go to the synagogue I go to now. Nor would I be able to sit in a Starbuck’s early Saturday morning before I go the Saturday morning services, and paint and people watch, which is a very sacred and precious time for me. That Saturday morning cup of coffee is so different than the other seven mornings of coffee, yet the Mishnah prohibits it on so many levels.

Yet as I discussed last week, what I do for Shabbat is still far more than most Jews do. As a friend of mine commented me recently, we tend to think of Shabbat in terms of all or nothing thinking. Even our euphemism for a very observant person, Shomer Shabbos, builds on that thinking. And so, if we believe we cannot do all of what the Mishnah or the Orthodox think is observance, we decide to do nothing.

Yet as we read on in this portion, Moses asks for donations of both materials and skill to help build the Mishkan. And the response is overwhelming:

21. And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and they brought the Lord’s offering to the work of the Tent of Meeting, and for all his service, and for the holy garments. 22. And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing hearted, and brought bracelets, and ear rings, and rings, and bracelets, all jewels of gold; and every man who offered offered an offering of gold to the Lord. 23. And every man, with whom was found blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, and red skins of rams, and goats’ skins, brought them. 24. Every one who offered an offering of silver and bronze brought the Lord’s offering; and every man, with whom was found shittim wood for any work of the service, brought it. 25. And all the women who were wise hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, both of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine linen. 26. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair. 27. And the rulers brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate; 28. And spice, and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense. 29. The people of Israel brought a willing offering to the Lord, every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for every kind of work, which the Lord had commanded to be made by the hand of Moses.

What I find so amazing about this passage is the not everyone brought everything but individuals brought different things. It differentiates between man and woman, that all had a unique gift. Otherwise, verse 22-29 could have been skipped, and 21 would have said it all. What I believe this means is we are all individuals, uniquely crafted by God. We all bring something different to the building of holiness. So too with Shabbat, we all bring our own unique perspective and situation to the Island in Time. And just like a tropical resort on some island, if we all did everything exactly the same, it wouldn’t be much fun. Yes there are a lot of things we do alike at a resort like eat good meals and walk along the beach, yet not everything, and that is what makes the resort a better place. We all don’t play tennis and golf nor want to, nor do we all want just the beach or just the pool. Each has their preference. If we all did exactly the same things at the same time, many of the activities would be ruined. If everyone played golf or tennis at the same time, there would be too many players on the court or course to actually play the game.

When on retreat or in a predominately Jewish area, I have had the occasion to follow the more stringent rules, and I also agree they are somewhat satisfying for those short durations. But for me to follow all the rule all the time just would work for me -- I enjoy certain activities on Shabbat too much to give them up - I find things like painting, playing instruments or Photography on Shabbat just as much a celebration and witnessing of creation as some find not turning on any electric switches. And it was in this spirit that when I first got back into Judaism about ten years ago, I created my own list of personal halakah for Shabbat, both positive and negative rules to follow. That list has changed over the years, but its current version is this one:

Shlomo’s Shabbos
Live Juicy one day a week. Celebrate it with candles. Read Torah and Talmud and contemplate them. Wear Hawaiian shirts when you can. Do not use electronic devices-no Internet, iPods, or TV. Only relate to others by voice on your iPhone. Don’t buy anything but food or medicine. Eat a REALLY good meal. Love. If no one else is around love yourself. Don’t forget to hug! Dessert and sweets were created for Shabbos!!! Try to walk. Be sensual. Use all your senses to consciously taste, smell, see, touch, and hear. Sense how wonderful everything is. Read and study. Read spiritual books and novels of imagination. Take naps. Paint the beauty in the world. Pray and Play. It doesn’t matter what or how -just play. Sing for the joy of singing, sing for the joy of God. With instruments, even if you can’t. Don’t do anything that has to do with work-unless someone's life is in danger. Spend time relating to other people. Have outrageous conversations. Bless yourself, everyone, and everything else.
My belief is that we all should have such a list, and we should all practice what we put down on our list. If you are doing nothing or never written down a list like this, I challenge you to do so.

So here’s the challenge: pick five positive commandments to and for yourself to do every Shabbat, five things that you obligate yourself, with god as the witness, that you will do. Then pick five things you will forbid yourself from doing every Shabbat. While my list has changed, mostly with additions and dealing with issues like what functions of my iPhone am I allowed to use, it has been close to a constant for close to a decade. When I really follow this list, I really feel good about myself, and good about the world we live in. Your list may be different, and that is just as good and holy as mine, though you may use my ideas as well. Like the holy place we build in this portion we all bring something different to Shabbat. Most of us cannot do all but we can do something. And only when we all bring what each individual especially can bring can Shabbat be particularly holy, so holy it may even build the third temple of messianic times.

Have a great Shabbat.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ki Tissa 5769: The Spice of Death, Used for Life

I have an obsession. It started with sex, but ended up as my breakfast. Every morning, I usually get up, get dressed and drive to a Starbuck's close to where I will be working for the day. Every day, I order the same thing for breakfast: A venti coffee and oatmeal. While I drink the coffee black, I do add something to the oatmeal. Since the first time I have done so, I have I’ve noticed something. What I added to my oatmeal is mentioned in this week’s portion, though it is far from edible.

23. Take you also to you the best spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, 24. And of cassia five hundred shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive a hin; 25. And you shall make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound according to the art of the apothecary; it shall be a holy anointing oil.[Exodus 30]

This is to be the oil which all of the vessels of the temple are to be anointed with. There are debates as to the mass of the shekel, making conversion into modern units difficult. 9, 11, 14, and 17 grams are commonly possibilites. Adin Steinstalz in his Talmud: A Reference Guide defines a shekel as 9 grams, and in the lack of any better conversion factor we can come up with a formula of dry ingredients:

Myrrh 500 Shekels (4500gr)

Cinnamon 250 Shekels (2250gr)

Sweet calamus 250 Shekels (2250gr)

Cassia 500 Shekels (4500gr)

This spice power was then suspended in a hin of olive oil. A hin of olive oil is also debated, but this might be 7.1 liters. That would mean if the dry ingredients were added directly to the oil there was 1.9 grams/ml of spice, an amount which would be closer to a paste than flowing oil.
The Talmud however, notes the dry ingredients was extracted by heating this mixture, and the resultant extract was what was added to the oil [K’ritot 5b]. The Talmud also makes adjustments by adding 250 shekels more of sweet cinnamon [K’ritot 5a-b].
Looking at these concentrations, I have for long time suspected something about the anointing oil for the vessels. Part of my suspicion comes from the punishment for using the stuff.
32. Upon man’s flesh shall it not be poured, nor shall you make any other like it, after its composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33. Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it upon a stranger, shall be cut off from his people.[Exodus 30]
While it is a sacred material, I’ve wondered about such warnings which sound very much like the warnings of a chemical manufacturer when warning a consumer. When I first wondered about this about ten years ago, I was researching the large number of botanical references found in the Song of Songs. Cinnamon, myrrh, and calamus all occur in one verse:
14. Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices; [Song of Songs 4]
Translating the Song I wondered if this was not just a metaphor for some very expensive imported plants, but something more, an herbal pharmacopeia. In the Song of Songs I was looking for aphrodisiacs, but what I found was far more interesting. As I did my research I found out several things about each of these spices:
Cinnamon and Cassia: As far as modern trade names are concerned these are both cinnamon. However, Cinnamon or sweet cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is the imported Indian and Sri Lankan species, and cassia (Cinnamomum cassia) is from China, sometimes called Chinese cinnamon. While both have in common the chemical cinnamaldehyde making up 65-80% of its volatile oil, Cassia has less of other active chemicals than Cinnamon, including the antimicrobial o-methoxycinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon in Hebrew is Kinmon and cassia in Hebrew Kidah. However the Aramaic translation of Exodus 30 has k’tziata, which sounds a lot more like cassia. Kidah and Kinmon has only three occurrences each in the biblical text. The use of the two types of cinnamon do have a sensual side to them, as noted in the Song of Songs (4:14) passage and in the Seductress of Proverbs (7:17) both times associated with anther of the ingredients of the anointing oil, Myrrh. Cassia and Calamus also occur together in Ezekiel 27:19 in terms of being an item traded from afar.
In laboratory experiments, cassia and cinnamon both have been found to retard microbial growth including a wide variety of disease-causing bacteria and fungi. Other research has pointed to other uses. Its folk use as a remedy for abdominal pain seems to have some evidence. Lab tests on animals describe the relaxation of intestinal linings when exposed to cinnamon. The German Commission E, the German government commission given responsibility over herbal supplements in Germany, found evidence it was as effective as cimetidene in controlling gastric problems. However research has also shown it has little to no effect on Helicobacter pylori, the cause of many ulcer related problems. Cinnamon has shown a its greatest promise as a food preservative to retard E. coli and Salmonella among other food pathogens.
Myrrh: While the other three ingredients have only three occurrences, Myrrh had fifteen. Eight are in the Songs of Songs and may have meaning more in its extraction as much as its use. Myrrh is the sap of a tree of genus Commiphora found primarily in the Middle East. Which species is anyone’s guess, because all have similar properties. To harvest Myrrh, one has to massage out the whitish or reddish sap from a slit made in the tree’s twigs, suggesting one of its sexual connotations particualy in the scene in Chapter 5 of the Song of Songs. Myrrh’s other sexual connotation may be hinted themost in its one mention in the book of Esther. One of the precautions given about myrrh in virtually every folk tale and pharmacopeia about it and in several academic journals is its uncanny ability to initiate menstruation. Thus all sources forbid the use of myrrh with pregnant women due to the possibility of miscarriage. Therefore in the case of Esther 3:12 the six months, or two trimesters of Myrrh treatments may be a case of an induced abortion and contraception to assure any child born of the woman chosen queen was a legitimate heir to Ahasuerus’ throne. I could even speculate in one other case about such an abortion: the bitter waters rite for a woman suspected of adultery. Such a rite required the dust from the Mishkan, the same dust the Myrrh infused anointing oil dripped. When ingested, the high concentration of myrrh in the dust on the Mishkan floor might have caused an abortion from an illicit affair, what the text refers to as her thighs falling [Numbers 5:27].
But once again, Myrrh or Mor in Hebrew most documented use in medical literature is as an antimicrobial and fungicide. It was one of the items used in embalming fluid of the Egyptian mummification process, and does wonders in killing all kinds of molds. Apparently it also stimulates the human immune system as well. Due to its difficult harvesting methods and the scarcity of the plant, it is very expensive to use. Thus there is not a significant amount of modern research into its properties.
Sweet calamus: Called Kaneh in both Hebrew and Aramaic, there have been many debates as to what it really is. Most authorities including Israeli biblical botanist Zohary agree it probably is one of the grass species Cymbopogon, with Zohary championing Cymbopogon marinii, commonly known as ginger grass, even though there is another species indigenous to Israel. There is evidence of its use from Egyptian tombs by the smell reported of ginger grass still evident when sealed tombs are opened. People today probably know the East Asian species best, Cymbopogon citratus or lemongrass. As Ezekiel 27:19 and Jeremiah 6:20 seem to indicate Kaneh was an import to Israel, probably from India. One extract from Cymbopogon nardus is citronella, known for its insect repellent properties. All species of Cymbopogon are bactericidal, and there is some laboratory evidence that some may also be antiviral.
There is a consistent pattern among all of the spices of the anointing oil. All, in one way or another are demonstrated antimicrobials. When the raw spice was concentrated into essential oils then placed in an olive oil suspension this became one of the first recorded sanitizers. It purpose was not one of directly of life, but of death to microorganisms. Given the amount of blood and animal carcasses that were part of the priestly sacrifices, killing microorganisms on surfaces makes sense as a way to limit illness from contamination. It is not coincidental that right before the anointing oil God tell Moses to build a handsink, and that Aaron and his sons are to “wash with water, that they do not die” [Exodus 30:20] The health and safety of the priests depended on good decontamination procedures from their daily tasks. The anointing oil was probably the worlds first recorded antiseptic.
But like the bleach we use today, it was not made for human consumption. While all of these ingredients were edible in small quantities, at the concentrations in the anointing oil they might very well be toxic. While some of the others have potential for contact dermatitis, cinnamon and cassia essential oils can cause burns to human skin if left on for prolonged periods. In an oil base this is very likely, demonstrated by cases where it is suspended in petrolatum, and thus another reason for the prohibition of placing on a human being. When we read the phrase “cut off from his people” the rabbis understand this not as a literal ex-communication, but a death penalty meted out by God. Put another way, when that phrase occurs, there is the potential for lethal consequences. In the anoiting oil, toxic levels of cinnamaldehyde alone could cause painful burns.
We tend to think of many of our advances in science as happening in only the last 500 years, and tend to forget that there were people observing the natural world far before that. Some of what those people found was wrong, but more and more, we are finding evidence that was thought superstition was effective cures. I’ve not had problems with gastritis or heartburn since I started eating my cinnamon oatmeal every day. Instead of swallowing Tagamet, I think I’ll keep enjoying a little cinnamon in my oatmeal.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Tetzaveh 5769:Aaron Clothed, Esther Naked

There is a huge irony thematically between this week’s reading of Tetzaveh and the book of Esther. In Tetzaveh, this week we continue with plans for the Mishkan, including the oil for the lamps, the garments of the high priest, and the incense. There are also instructions on how to give a sacrifice on the altar. Early in the text we read:
And take to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. 2. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty.
A few days after Shabbat, when reading the book of Esther, we will read:
10. On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbonah, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of Ahasuerus the king, 11. To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the royal crown, to show the people and the princes her beauty; for she was beautiful to look on. 12. But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command by his eunuchs; and the king was very angry, and his anger burned in him. [Esther 1]
Later in the Megilah we will read:
1 And it came to pass on the third day Esther clothed herself in royalty, and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s palace; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal palace, opposite the gate of the house. 2. And it was so, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight; and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter. [Esther 5]
Nowhere in the text do we read that Vashti is summoned in the nude, merely in royal crown. The Rabbis later interpret this to mean in crown and nothing else.
Some said, The Median women are the most beautiful, and others said, The Persian women are the most beautiful. Said Ahasuerus to them, The vessel that I use is neither Median nor Persian, but Chaldean. Would you like to see her? They said, Yes, but she must be naked [B. Megilah 12b]
Which of course begs the question of what Esther entering the court of the King clothed in royalty means:
Esther, as it is written, Now it came to pass on the third day that Esther clothed herself in royalty. Surely it should say,’royal apparel’? What it shows is that the Holy Spirit clothed her. It is written here, ‘and she clothed’, and it is written in another place. Then the spirit clothed Amasai, etc.(I Chron. 12:19) [B. Megilah 14b]

The crown was the only thing Vashti was supposed to wear when ordered to the court. Refusing to do so, she was executed. In the flip-flop nature of the book of Esther, Esther entered clothed only in the Holy Spirit unbidden to the King’s court, with the threat of execution over her for entering the court. Esther survives a situation that should have gotten her killed, one thing that might have made it possible was her bare skin clothed only in Ruach Hakodesh.
We also have Aaron and his sons, who get a whole set of various clothing items to wear, from the ephod to linen underwear. While Esther naked and Aaron fully dressed seems not to be related I think they are.
Back in late December I began a relationship with an incredible lady. There is a picture of me from June while I was at a professional conference that she particularly likes. When we went out for dinner on Valentine’s day, I wore the shirt in the picture, and she was delighted. In my paintings, I’ve also noted lately how I’m not so interested in my usual subject matter, scantily clad women. Since I’ve been in a relationship with her, they just don’t thrill me the same way they did before.
Many in modernity might look at this week’s chapter as one that has little meaning, since the outfit of Aaron is obsolete without a temple. I don’t think it’s about the outfit as much as why one is wearing it. There are times we do things for people we love. We know they like a certain shirt for example. By wearing that shirt of our own free will, we non-verbally make a statement of “I love you” because we like to delight our partner.
Of course, there is the possibility that a partner demands something from you. While she never would, my sweetie could demand or require me to wear that shirt. This changes the relationship, to one of dominance and submissiveness. For some, this might work, but for others such a relationship leads to drifting away from the relationship, as these constraints are too much to bear.
The women I’ve painted for so long out of such things as Victoria Secret catalogs and fashion magazines are about desire. Showing of skin, whether a little or a lot, is about unfulfilled lust and cravings, the same way a picture of a hot fudge sundae dripping molten chocolate inspires hunger. The way the Rabbis envision Esther, she knew exactly what she was doing. In all commentaries, it’s clear Esther never slept with the king, while all her other ‘competitors’ did. The rabbis never say it directly, but portray Esther as a tease, and she used that to her people’s advantage. The king’s unfulfilled lust of Esther got her the job as queen and even his willingness to give her anything up to half the kingdom, and eventually to save the Jewish people. His wanting to finally feel good at the hands of Esther clouds all other judgment.
I believe these three ways of wearing clothes explain three different ways of approaching the mitzvot of Torah. We can look at the commandments as commands from a king, one we as the lowly subject must obey. We might also find some kind of unfulfilled spiritual lust satisfied by their observance.
The one I find best is putting on that shirt on for Valentine’s Day. I showed my love for my sweetheart. By doing the mitzvot, we show our love for God. Torah in this light has a different meaning than mere obedience. Mitzvot are the things that delight God, they are the ways that we tell God how much we love and cherish the Divine. I can’t hug or kiss God, but I can refrain from eating pork, not work on Saturdays, and mount a mezuzah on my door. It’s not about lust or obedience, but being in relationship with someone special, someone we deeply love. It’s a lot like that classic line from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. “As you wish” really means “I love you.” So too can we approach our loving relationship with God.