Before Adam sinned, he required no clothing (Bereishis 2:25). His physical body radiated ohr (light), faithfully expressing the light of the angelic soul within it. Once Adam sinned, however, his physical body lost this spiritual level and no longer fully expressed that inner light. The pasuk describes how Adam and Chava suddenly realized their nakedness and became embarrassed, desiring to cover their bodies with clothing (Ibid. 3:7). What is the meaning behind their embarrassment, and why was clothing the ideal remedy?
One becomes embarrassed when they believe that how they are perceived externally is not a true reflection of who they are internally. This is the spiritual concept of bushah (shame). When there is a breakdown between the inner self and its outer expression, the inner self feels ashamed that it is being misrepresented, seen on the outside as something that it is not. For example, if someone spreads a lie that you cheated on a test, you would feel embarrassed because there is now a false perception of who you are as a person. Now say it wasn’t a lie and you did cheat: You would still be embarrassed if people heard the truth, because you would know deep down that you are better than how you acted and how people now perceive you.
We wear clothes because our bodies, in their current lowly form, are a source of embarrassment. We are souls – holy angelic beings – and yet our appearance in this world is that of physical beings with bodies only marginally different from animals. For those who understand who and what they truly are, it is embarrassing to be seen as anything less than an absolutely spiritual and transcendent being. This is the ultimate breakdown between the inner and outer self.
The natural response to shame is the desire to hide. We feel a need to escape the scene of the crime of this misrepresentation and misperception. When Adam and Chava realized their nakedness, their first instinct was to grab fig leaves and hide their bodies. Hashem responded by making them garments of ohr – spelled this time with an ayin instead of an aleph, the word does not mean light but skin (Ibid. 21).
Clothing can serve two simultaneous purposes: It can conceal the embarrassment of our inner light no longer shining through our physical bodies, and in doing so it can also cloak us in dignity. With our shame no longer visible, our Tzelem Elokim is what remains. We use this clothing to reflect who we truly are. Thus the thing we reach for in our moment of failure and embarrassment is the means to overcome our problem. This is why Kohanim are required to wear such beautiful clothing, allowing the physical body to reflect the dignity and greatness of the true self. Hashem covered Adam and Chava with ohr (clothing) so that they could elevate it and once again reveal their true ohr (light).
The Potential of Clothing
Like all things in this world, clothing has tremendous potential when used correctly; however, it can also be corrupted and misused. When used properly, clothing mitigates the shame of our physical bodies and helps us express our higher, dignified selves in the world. When misused, clothing can hide our spiritual core and portray us as completely physical beings.
This idea is expressed in the Hebrew word for clothing, beged, which is composed of the letters beis, gimmel, and dalet. In the Hebrew alphabet, these three letters immediately follow the letter aleph, the letter which represents the spiritual root, the soul. If used correctly, one beged can faithfully express our soul into the world. But the letters of beged also spell boged, which means traitor, because our clothing can betray our true inner selves. A traitor adopts a fake exterior that does not reflect his true identity. When clothing misrepresents who we truly are, our inner self is betrayed.
Another word for clothing is levush, which can also be read as “lo bosh” (not embarrassed). Clothing has the potential to eliminate our embarrassment, but only when used correctly. When the focus of clothing becomes the clothing themselves, the clothing does nothing to address our existential embarrassment.
Me’il is yet another Hebrew word for garment, referring to an outer coat. It shares the same root as the word me’ilah, which refers to the prohibition of stealing or benefiting from kodshim (items consecrated for use in the Holy Temple). The prohibition of me’ilah is of taking that which is kadosh – elevated and belonging to Hashem – and lowering it to a state of chol, the mundane. Just as it is a problem to misuse consecrated items, it is problematic to misuse a garment meant to help us elevate ourselves.
One of the most misunderstood ideas in Judaism is the concept of tznius, most often translated as modesty. This is especially true regarding women. Many think that tznius means to hide and that the ideal is to be unseen. There is, however, an infinitely deeper approach to tznius.
Physical beauty is neither good nor bad; it is merely a vessel with the potential to be used for good or bad. While our physical body is immensely valuable, our true self is our neshama – our soul, our inner mind, our highest consciousness. Our inner world, thoughts, ideas, choices, beliefs, middos, and emotions are the deepest and most genuine parts of our self. True beauty is when the physical serves as a vessel that expresses that true inner self into the world.
The focus must always be on the inner beauty as the ikar, the main thing. The purpose of tznius is not to hide. It is to reveal! Tznius shifts the focus from external trappings to the neshama, the core that is the source of true beauty.