Ki Teitzei: Clothing and Respect

April 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on August 16, 2010.)

Do not watch an ox or a lamb belonging to your brother (fellow man) going astray, and hide yourself from them; you shall certainly return them to your brother.  And if your brother is not in your vicinity, and you do not know him, then you will take it into the middle of your house, and it will stay with you until your brother comes inquiring about it, and then you will return it to him.  And thus you will do for his donkey, and thus you will do for his clothing, and thus you will do for any lost item of your brother’s that goes astray and that you find.  You shall not dare to hide.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:1-3)

simlah (also salmah) = clothing, garment, a cloth

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (When you go out), uses the word simlah four times.  The first time occurs in the rules for a soldier who brings home a beautiful war captive to be one of his wives.  She must shave her head, grow her nails, discard the simlah of her captivity, and weep for her parents for a full month before the marriage can be completed.

These rules consider the needs of the poor captive, but they also address the soldier’s view of her.  During her month of mourning he will probably come to see her as a human being, rather than merely a sex object.  Discarding the clothing of her captivity is important because when a woman wears a captive’s garment, she is seen as a captive.  Without this covering, she can be seen as a person.

The second use of simlah is in the rules for returning lost property, translated above.  I’ll get back to that.  First I want to glance at the third use of the word simlah, in Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5:  … and a powerful man shall not put on the clothing of a woman. Setting aside later arguments about cross-dressing, homosexuality, and Canaanite mythology, the underlying message here seems to be that it’s wrong to appear to be something you’re not.  Your outer appearance, how you come across in public, should be consistent with who you really are.

The fourth use of the word simlah (this time spelled salmah, but scholars agree the two words are the same) is in the instructions about security for a loan (Deuteronomy 24:12).  A poor person has nothing to pledge but a cloth, his only  piece of clothing.  Therefore the lender must return the pledge every sunset, so the borrower has something to sleep in.  Extending this idea, we could say it’s wrong to leave anyone exposed (to cold, or to damp, or to social hazards) when they are unconscious, i.e. unable to act for themselves.  Whatever they may owe us, we owe them a protective covering; every human being is entitled to that much care and dignity.

Now, back to the passage about lost property, which I translated at the beginning of this blog.  If someone loses a simlah, we are obligated to return it.  If we can’t return it immediately, we must keep it safe until the owner appears.  We must not hide, pretending we don’t see the lost clothing.

As with the beautiful captive or the strong man, clothing defines a person’s appearance to others.  We cannot look directly at someone’s inner self; we can only look at the outer covering:  the way someone appears in public, their reputation.  And as with the security for a loan, the outer covering also protects a person from exposure to social dangers.

So if people we know lose their reputations, we are obligated to protect them from further dangerous exposure.  How?  Perhaps by avoiding slander and gossip, and by gently correcting other people’s impressions.  If people we don’t know lose their reputations, we must still take personal responsibility; we must defend their good names and discourage gossip.  We must allow all people human dignity during the time it takes them to recover and redeem themselves.

What a challenge!  But if we choose an ethical path, we dare not hide from it.

 

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