There are many synagogues in the world, (luckily not ours right now, which require the clergy to wear billowing robes every Shabbat. There is traditionally a black robe for Shabbat and chagimand the white robe or kittel that I do wear on High Holidays.
I do not own a black robe, but each year when I read about the bigdei kehunah in Parashat Titzaveh, I think anew about its teaching. We see at 29:9 that when Aaron and his sons wear the vestments, "they will have a lasting priesthood...." In the Talmud Zevachim 17b, a chain of rabbis going back to Eleazar ben Rashbi teaches that when they are dressed for the priesthood, only then are they priests. When they are not, it is as if they are "zarim" (strangers), and the Torah teaches elsewhere that a stranger who offers sacrifice is put to death. That raises the stakes somewhat!
The point of this drashah (teaching) is not an appeal for return to formal ecclesiastical wardrobes but rather a reminder that appearances do count. Whether we like it or not, we are constantly judged based on how we dress and how formal or informal we choose to be in different situations, including coming to the synagogue. "Clothing" is also a metaphor for our entire manner of self-presentation. How are we "dressed" when we present ourselves to the community? Do we speak with a foul mouth, nibul peh, or with decency and compassion? What do we project to the world or when we schmooze during kiddush?
As I've told many of you before, I attended Camp Ramah in California for 11 summers, the final five working as a counselor. One morning in my final year one of my assistant counselors had both of the head tefillin straps behind his back (they are supposed to be in front with the black part showing). I very politely mentioned to him to pull them to the front, and he looked somewhat irritated and asked me: "What difference does it make?"
Someone had asked me a year or two prior: "If you are going into traffic court to see the judge, wouldn't you be sure to have your tie straight and lapels just right?" I asked the assistant the same question and he said: "Yes." I told him: "We are coming before the ultimate Judge, and we ought to have it right." I could instantly tell he liked the analogy as he fixed his straps. Ironically, that counselor is now in rabbinical school.
Psalm 104:1 (Borchi nafshi), recited in many synagogues on Rosh Hodesh, praises God as garbed in beauty and splendor, cloaked in light. As we dress for Shabbat and for tefillah, let's imagine ourselves preparing to present ourselves to the King, eager to project beauty and respect for the sacred occasion.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham