Clothes often evoke powerful memories of the person who wore them. When my mother died 3.5 years ago, my young nieces were looking through her closet during the shiva and found some treasures lovingly tucked away, that they had never seen before. They brought them into the living room: “Auntie Sharon! Look what we found!!” Can you EVER imagine bubbie wearing this?!?!” They held up a stunning Persian lamb coat with a mink collar, with my grandmother’s initials, that my mother used to wear when I was young. Another niece put on a short American broadtail jacket that also used to be my grandmothers. And a third niece was holding this dress that I’m wearing right now: my mother had this dress made for her for some special occasion when she was 20 – I have photos of my mother wearing it.
My nieces thought these items of clothing were hysterically funny. But I have the memories of my then-young and very beautiful mother wearing them. I said to my siblings, “I’m the only one in the family who will fit in these, is it ok if I take them?” And so now I have some of my mother’s and grandmother’s special clothing.
I also have some handkerchiefs that belong to my dad, tallitot that belonged to my mother and to my father.
Tonight, our Sisterhood president Amy Lask, is wearing her late mother’s ring and necklace, keeping her mother near and dear to her heart, physically and well as emotionally.
When I wear something that used to belong to my mother, father or one of my grandparents, I feel as if I am wrapped in their embrace. I feel their presence near me, with me. It comforts me. It gives me a sense of peace.
Clothes can evoke memories for the rest of us as well. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As we all know, his wife Jackie, was riding by his side in the convertible limousine when he was shot in Dallas. The images of Jackie in her pink pill-box hat and blood-spattered pink suit remain engraved in our minds. They are tied up with our memories of where we were when we heard the news of JFK’s assassination.
Jackie was known for her impeccable taste in everything: home décor, entertaining and clothing: especially her clothing. She exemplified Mark Twain’s adage: “Clothes make the man.” It was Jackie who restored the White House to its original beauty, so that tourists and guests could visit and see our nations President’s residence as the magnificent landmark it was intended to be. It was Jackie who was brought dignity and elegance to Washington, despite some of the less-than-dignified behaviors that were taking place. She dressed the part, she looked the part, and she did what needed to be done. But she was more than a beautiful superficial trophy wife. Her steely resolve helped her raise two smart and educated children, dedicated to public service. She was smart, extremely literate and very independent. It is very fitting that we celebrate Sisterhood Shabbat on this Yahrzeit for JFK. Jackie’s strength and tenacity enabled her to live a rich, fulfilling and meaningful life despite the tragedy of “Camelot.”
Mark Twain once said that “clothes make the man”. Jackie certainly exemplified that. However, Jackie herself embodied so much more. You only have to read any one of a number of biographies of her to see that.
And so it is with Joseph in our Torah portion this week. Joseph’s life is bound up in clothing – just as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onnasis’ life was. It all begins in this week’s Torah portion when Joseph’s father makes him that famous multi-colored, techni-colored tunic. Because, as the text tell us: “Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was a child of his old age, and he made him an ornamented tunic.” (37:3).
This was something very special. His many brothers did not receive anything like it from their father – and they saw that their father loved him more than their brothers. They hated him so much, they could not speak a friendly word to him. Not only did this piece of clothing “make the man”, it conveyed that Joseph had a special status: perhaps that of a beloved firstborn son – displacing all the other brothers.
Isn’t amazing how a simple piece of clothing could convey all of that? Joseph will soon suffer because of this status. He dreams dreams, and then boasts that he will be above his brothers and his parents.
Eventually, his clothing leads to his downfall. His brothers begin to hate him so much that they strip him of his garment, throw him in a pit, and at first, determine that they will kill him. Then decide that they will sell him.
We all know the Joseph story well. After Joseph ends up in Egypt, and eventually lands in prison, he comes to the understanding that it wasn’t the coat that made Joseph special. It wasn’t even the unique traits with which he was blessed. It was Joseph’s realization that his special gifts were a Divine blessing and should be used for common good. This is what Joseph discovered. The end result was he became a little less haughty, more humble and was able to benefit the entire community.
Jackie O – beneath all of her beautiful clothing – was able to use her special gifts to nurture the gifts in others. She became less about her clothing and more about who she was as a person and what she was able to accomplish on behalf of others.
So as we celebrate the special women in our lives tonight with this Sisterhood Shabbat, we look at what we inherit from them: beyond our beautiful dresses, jewelry and other physical items. These women – and men – leave a legacy that goes beyond the external. May the external garments remind us that the garments only come to life when we invest them with deeds and actions of love on behalf of others. Then we will truly feel the warm embrace of the ones we love wrapped around us when we put them on.