I need to confess something. When I began writing this weeks commentary, I did a review of my previous pieces and they are all thematically a comparison of two people: Esther and the High Priest. Comparing an exiled orphan who intermarried into Persian royalty, then seduced the king to kill his prime minister and make an ordinance to kill anyone who hated Jews is so different than the one man in a generation who can enter the holy of holies of the Temple. they seem like such different people. The reading of parshat Tetzaveh very often directly precedes the reading of Megillat Esther. This year they are almost back to back. I’ve compared these two several times based on the theme of Tetzaveh, that clothes are more than just something to keep us from being naked. Besides a mere coincidence, why do these two reading so often correspond to each other?
This time however it is not Torah or Megillat Esther I start with, it is my new found love of roller derby. Sweetie, who is a big fan, took me to see the recent movie Whip it, and last month took me to my first bouts at a local university. Strangely enough, I’m hooked on one of the most improbable sports for me to ever be a fan of.
But then, Roller derby is one of the most improbable sports of all time. For those unfamiliar with the modern sport, it appears to me some mutant combination of Speed-skating, Hockey, and football, all played by a bunch of women in revealing tops and fishnets. There are two teams of five on a skating rink. One player on each team, wearing a star on her helmet, is a jammer. She is the one who scores points for her team. The other four are called blockers and try to block the opposing jammer from scoring points. Simply put, a point is scored when a jammer passes a player from the other team. Of course the other team tries to prevent this by blocking or knocking down the jammer in order to prevent her from scoring. The action is fast, and might be best described as a large scale shoving match on wheels.
Besides the game, there are other aspects of Roller derby that make it an interesting sport. The fans are very often a younger, alternative looking set than many sporting events. Unlike any other sport I’d pay money to see, the entire league is a volunteer league. Players, coaches, refs, and all the support staff are there just for the love for the game. Fans have favorite players of course, but unlike any other sport besides professional wrestling, everyone knows a player’s track nickname, but rarely their real name. But there is one aspect of the game, one I think most everyone there is attracted to No matter if they are fan or player, is the women who play roller derby appear to be the most comfortable women in their own skins.
Watch any of the Winter Olympics and you will notice something: there is an ideal body form for all of these high performance sports. How much we fit female athletes into a ideal body image is best noted by an annual February tradition: The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. This year along with the supermodels was several Olympic hopefuls decked out in bikinis. Who is model and who is athlete is hard to tell in these photos. Yet, roller derby girls don’t fit this rather artificial ideal. One thought I had watching them line up for a bout was rather startling to me. When I was young and the proverbial 98 pound weakling, I remember being picked last for team sports in Phys ed class. The rare case when I was not was the times we played co-ed. Girls who did not look much different than those on the track, some very small, some very thin, or those who were above average weight were those who were picked last as their looks dictated their athletic ability.On that track those years of being picked last are proven wrong. These are trained athletes who don’t fit the model’s ideal of an athlete. They are comfortable in rejecting the ideal for the real.
As Purim has become a kids holiday, we often hear a Disney Princess version of a rather R-rated tale. The story which has more twists than a coil of rope starts with an interesting one. Bragging about his wife’s beauty, The king of Persia orders his wife, Queen Vashti to come wearing nothing but her crown to the court to show off her beauty. Vashti refuses and ends up executed for her insolence. Now the king needs a new queen, and a search is made for a new one. Women throughout the kingdom are gathered at the palace, sent through beauty treatments, given whatever they want in jewelery, dress and ostentation to get ready for the king. They are eventually sent to the king for a night “interview.” If the king likes her he will declare her queen. If not, she is moved from the house of the virgins to the house of the concubines. One Jewish exile, Esther, cared for by her cousin Mordecai is one of the women set to meet the king. Yet she takes advice other women do not:
15. Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his daughter, came to go to the king, she asked for nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the keeper of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her.[Esther 2]
Esther is described only once as beautiful, but three times as “having found favor” of those who saw her. The word for favor can also mean gracious, and I believe it was Ester’s graciousness more than her looks that made the difference:
15. Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his daughter, came to go to the king, she asked for nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the keeper of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her. 16. So Esther was taken to king Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. 17. And the king loved Esther above all the other women, and she found grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.[Esther 2]
When she later comes to the king in her rather ingenious plot to save her people, she comes unbidden, which could mean a death sentence. The text tells us:
1. And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther dressed 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. 3. Then said the king to her, What do you wish, queen Esther? and what is your request? It shall be given to you even to the half of the kingdom.[Esther 5]
While in parshat Tetzaveh we hear of virtually every stitch in Aaron’s outfit as the high priest, what Esther wore in front of the king is a bit of a mystery. The word used is royalty, which leaves much to the imagination. The rabbinic opinions differ greatly from a very formal presentation of jewels and dress, to the most common opinion: she was dressed in the spirit of the Divine Presence. I’ve had the opinion, given the irony that Vashti refused to come in nothing but crown to her husband, that Esther was wearing nothing but the Shechina. Yet, I’m not sure about that anymore. The story does not mention what she wore is because it was not important. Her mere presence in a room, no matter what she was or was not wearing was incredibly intoxicating. Such things only happen to someone who was completely in touch with who they are, who is comfortable in their own skin. Much of this comes from a belief in God, and a sense of humility before God. Yet with Esther’s graciousness she was able to turn a genocide decree up side down and execute Haman and his cronies instead.
This week in Tetzaveh there is a lot of detail and a lot that Aaron and anyone in the role of High priest was to wear.
4. And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and an embroidered coat, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office.[Exodus 28]
Later on, God even commands the wearing of underwear.[28:42] Much of these garments contained stones and gold. the hem of the robe was made with gold bells, the ephod epaulets of gold and onyx. The Urim and the Thummim, the breastplate of judgement, was gold and stones, with more gold chain to secure it to the ephod. God begins his instructions for all this with:
2. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty[Exodus 28]
the word kavod, however might mean glory or honor, but it also means heavy and burdensome. The weight of all those accouterments certainly weighed down Aaron. But so did the weight of his responsibility for the sins of everyone else, and the weight of knowing how dangerous it is to be near the inner chambers of the mishkan. In a few weeks we’ll read the story of the death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu under such circumstances. Even in this portion we hear about all the gold bells on his robe:
35. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and his sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, that he should not die.[Exodus 28]
Looking at Aaron as a person, He is a quiet man. This is man who holds his silence after watching his sons die horribly only a few feet away from him. He has only three times in all of Torah he gets his own solo speaking part. In the golden calf incident he speaks twice, and once when he repents for both himself and Miriam after they slandered Moses. While he does not say anything on the death of his sons, when Moses starts getting cranky about not following procedure to the letter after the tragedy, Aaron intercedes. From when we first hear of him after the burning bush until his death, he always plays second fiddle to his younger brother, and sometimes even his sister Miriam. This despite a man who God knows is a good speaker [Exodus 4:14]
Kavod is a weighty honor, with many responsibilities. Some believe that for his acts in the Golden calf incident he was never punished. I think he was — He was made high priest, the man designated to bear all of the sins of Israel, and to preform his duties exactly right to absolve Israel of those sins, or else he may not survive the ceremony. Tractate Yoma tells the classic story that the high priest, when he went into the Holy of Holies for Yom Kippur has a cord tied around his leg so that if he died or got into trouble they could pull him out. We never know Aaron as a person, but we know what he wears. We know his uniform, and the sanctity and safety measures of his uniform.
Esther and Aaron make up a polarity, though they have much in common. They are the point person saving their people. they also have to do so with the threat of death hanging over them if they should make any mistake. Both have relatives that seem to get all the hero spotlight. Aaron however is defined by his clothes, and Esther by what is under them — the person she is. Both however are part of our identity, the person we are comfortable being inside and the outer things in our world that define who we are. No one is immune from extreme cold, abrasions, falls and tumbles. Aaron’s clothes on one side protected him from the dangers of his job, as does the knee and elbow pads and helmet protect many an athlete. No one is a mind reader either. Without the clothes it becomes difficult to identify someone. Our choices in dress is what will define us to others in that impressionable 90 seconds of first meeting. We will get much of our identity information from clothes. But at the same time how we present ourselves in those clothes is also important. When we show confidence and graciousness, others are confident of us, even interested in being part of our inner circle.
All of this comes down to the roller derby again, and seeing many very interestingly dressed women looking so confident. When buying a season program I got to meet one of the players, decked out in full All-star uniform. I got two impressions as she towered over me in helmet elbow pads, and short shorts with fishnets as the other woman in the booth sold me my program. The first was how much I would never want to fight with her, but the other was one of her grace and confidence, and that was the driving force behind the first.Going back to my seat to watch the end of the first half, I thought of her and Aaron and Esther. She is neither a queen or a priest, but embodied both Aaron and Esther. Maybe that is what I like the most about roller derby. At least in the current set of local bouts, the game isn’t about winning, though one team does win. It’s about being an all-together person, something so lacking in our sports heroes or leaders today. I can remember Ester and Aaron and those girls on the track to remind me that it is possible to be an all-together person.