The storyteller and folklorist Peninnah Schram collected many Jewish folktales about the Prophet Elijah, including one popular tale that describes Elijah showing up at a wedding feast, wearing old, torn clothes. The father of the bride was horrified that someone would show up in such a way at his daughter’s wedding, and told him to leave, or else he would order his servants to throw him out.
A few minutes later, a handsome man wearing a well-tailored suit and an elegant hat arrived at this same wedding. The guests all stood up out of respect for this gentleman, assuming he must be important. But when the servants served him the finest wine and the best of foods, the guest took each plate and shoved its contents into his pockets, and then poured the fine red wine over his entire suit.
Finally, one of the guests asked this man to explain his unusual behavior, and he explained that he was the same man who had earlier been thrown out of the wedding when he showed up in torn clothes. “Then when I came dressed in such elegant clothes, you rushed over to show me, a stranger in your community, such honor. But what you were doing was really showing this respect and honor only because of my clothes. Since you showed such respect for my clothes, then why shouldn’t the clothes receive the feast?”
Schram notes that this folk tale exists in numerous versions, Jewish and non-Jewish, as its message of the value of hospitality clearly resonated in various diverse societies. She also notes a parallel of sorts in a folk saying quoted in the Talmud (BT Shabbat 145b): “In my own city, I am honored for my name; when I go to a different city, I am honored for my clothing.”
At points in our lives, we are all like the father of the bride in the story, making judgments of other people based on superficial characteristics, like clothes, rather than on a real assessment of worth. At other points in our lives, we are all like Elijah, feeling that others are focusing only on our superficial characteristics and our essences are neglected.
The Torah portion of Tetzaveh (Exodus 27-30) includes a detailed description of the clothes that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and the other priests were to wear when they carried out their duties in the Tabernacle and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem. These clothes are to be woven with gold and royal blue and purple threads, and the high priest was to wear a breastplate studded with precious stones. These beautiful clothes would likely command instant respect and honor; wearing these ornate clothes would help the priests to take their tasks seriously. And at the same time, these clothes could give the priests inflated senses of their own self-worth.
The Talmud suggests that each of the garments of the priests connect each of the specific garments of the kohanim with various sins for which they are to atone (BT Zevahim 88b). The 19th century German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, turns this interpretation on its head, suggesting that each of the garments of the priests is actually etymologically related to a particular act of dishonesty that could even result from the priests wearing them: “The Hebrew word me’il [“robe”] is related to the word me’ilah [“misappropriation”]. Similarly, the Hebrew word beged [“clothing”] is related to the word begidah [“treachery”]… A person’s clothes are a sign of that person’s qualities. If one has trust in me as an honorable person, and I betray this trust, then it is clear that I was only like an article of clothing: to the outside world I appeared to be an honorable person, but I was only the covering or shell of a person.” (Hirsch, commentary to Leviticus 5:15)
Hirsch implies that these verses served as a reminder to the priests: You will be wearing clothing that will cause those who see you to honor you and respect you. This gives you an extra responsibility to search within yourself to make sure you are worthy of this additional honor, to make sure that those who see you can confirm that your inner self is as praiseworthy as your exterior appearance.
So often we are quick to make judgments based on superficial characteristics. Sometimes we quite literally make judgments of others based on their clothing. But we also form judgments of others, for better or for worse, based on what they do for a living, their marital status, their ethnic or national origin, or any other characteristic we feel that we can instantly assess. And conversely, we are often judged, for better or worse, on these same criteria. This often results in us, and others, being praised or blamed undeservedly.
Jewish tradition encourages us as much as possible to remember that these external characteristics are quite likely to deceive us and to mask the question that really matters when we assess someone’s character: Is this a person whose life embodies hesed — love and kindness and generosity?