Before Adam sinned, he required no clothing (B’reishis 2:25). His physical body radiated light, loyally expressing his angelic soul. Once Adam sinned, however, his physical body lost this spiritual level, no longer fully expressing the or (light) of his inner soul. The pasuk describes how Adam and Chavah 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 the way they are perceived externally is not a true reflection of who they are or at least how they believe they should be perceived. 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 tells everyone that you cheated on a test, when you did not, you would feel embarrassed, as you are being seen as something other than you really are. And even if you did cheat, you would still be embarrassed, because you know deep down inside 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 we appear in the world as 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. For example, if someone is embarrassed in public, his immediate wish is to dig a hole and hide until everyone leaves. If that doesn’t work, he might run away to a quiet room and cry alone. When we are seen as something we are not, or something we don’t want to be, we feel a need to escape the scene. When Adam and Chavah realized their nakedness, their first instinct was to grab fig leaves and hide their bodies (B’reishis 3:7). Hashem then made them garments of or (skin), clothing them with dignity (ibid. v. 21).
However, there are two purposes of clothing. The first is to hide the embarrassment of our nakedness, but the second is to reveal our true selves – to express our dignity as tzelem Elokim. We use the very means of our failure and embarrassment as the solution to our problem. By eating from the Eitz HaDaas Tov VaRa, our bodies no longer reflect our spiritual selves, and we require clothing, but we use that very clothing to elevate ourselves and reflect who we truly are. This is why kohanim are required to wear such beautiful clothing; clothing allows our physical bodies to reflect the dignity and greatness of our true selves. Hashem covered Adam and Chavah with or (clothing), so that they could uplift it and once again reveal their true or (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, portraying ourselves as completely physical beings.
The conflicting uses of clothing are expressed in the Hebrew word for clothing, “beged.” This word is made up of the letters beis, gimmel, and dalet, the three letters that immediately follow the letter alef. Alef represents the spiritual root, the soul. If used correctly, our “beged” can loyally express our soul, our inner self, into the world. But the letters of “beged” also spell “bogeid,” which means traitor and treachery, because our clothing can instead be used to betray our true inner selves. A traitor is one thing on the inside but pretends to be something else on the outside – he adopts a fake exterior, a fake outer garment, that does not reflect his true inner identity. When our clothing hides who we truly are, expressing nothing more than our physical surface – our clothing and bodies – 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 itself, failing to reveal our true inner selves, the clothing does nothing to prevent our existential embarrassment.
M’il is yet another Hebrew word for garment, referring to an outer coat. Yet, the word that shares this same root, “m’ilah,” refers to the prohibition of stealing or benefiting from kodashim, that which was designated as holy for the Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple). The prohibition of m’ilah is taking that which is kadosh, that which is elevated and belongs to Hashem, and lowering it to a state of chol (mundane). Just as it is a problem to misuse hekdeish (consecrated items), lowering it from its state of k’dushah to a state of chol, it is problematic to misuse a garment, failing to reveal anything higher.
One of the most misunderstood ideas in Judaism is the concept of tz’nius, especially in regard to women. Many think that tz’nius means to hide, that the ideal is not to be seen. However, there is an infinitely deeper approach to tz’nius. In this age, beauty has been corrupted. The term “beauty” generally refers to outer beauty, a surface beauty that distracts from and hides the inner self. 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 neshamah – our soul, our inner mind, our highest consciousness. Our inner world, thoughts, ideas, choices, beliefs, midos, and emotions are the deepest and most genuine parts of our “self.” True beauty is when the physical serves as a vessel that expresses one’s true self – one’s inner essence – into the world.
The focus must always be on the inner beauty as the ikar. The purpose of tz’nius is not to hide you but to reveal you! The true you. Tz’nius shifts the focus from the external trappings to the actual self, the neshamah, which lies beneath the surface and illuminates the physical vessel. True beauty requires a beautiful root and core, and the physical must then be used to project that inner beauty outwards.
Beauty is much deeper than a description of how a person looks; it’s a way of life. A beautiful life is a life of oneness where we synthesize all the aspects of who we are; where our thoughts, words, and actions all reflect a higher purpose, a higher source, a higher reality. This is the beauty of a Torah life; this is the power of oneness.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: ShmuelReichman.com.