Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Inside Out
A Simple Jew asks:
The Degel Machaneh Ephraim recorded this teaching that he heard directly from his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov:
"There is a parable of a prince whose father sent him to another country where the air was not good. He gave him a garment so that when he went outside he could wear that covering against the bad air. The characteristic of the air was that of deforming a person's body; and as the deformity entered the body, it also appeared in the garment. One had to keep watch against this. The moral is that the king's son is each person, and the garment is his neshoma. This is enough for one who understands."
Having recently learned Likutey Moharan #29, it struck me that there may be some relation between this parable and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's teachings about how a person's clothes become his judges. Do you think the Baal Shem Tov was also hinting at this concept?
Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:
The parable is difficult to understand, since usually the concept of "garments" generally denotes that which conceals--or clothes, as it were--something else. The physical is a garment for the spiritual, the body for the soul. It appears, at first glance, that in the parable, the paradigm of guf and neshama are reversed.
There is an idea that the mitzvos a person performs in this world become garments for the soul in the next world. For example, the text of the kavanah preceding atifas tallis includes the phrase, "just as I cover myself with a tallis in olam hazeh, so too may I merit a rabbinic garment and a beautiful tallis in olam haba in Gan Eden". Rabbi Shmuel Homminer z"l, in his Olas Tamid, quotes the Shaar HaKavannos where the Ari z"l describes how sin causes a soul's holy garments to be removed and replaced with soiled ones, in proportion to the sin--grave sins causing the garments to be removed altogether, may Hashem protect us. Thus, when a person makes the bracha of "malbish arumim" in the morning he or she should have in mind that he or she has been given a fresh, new garment with which to serve Hashem, and that the bracha of "hanosen la'yaef koach" refers to the spiritual strength that Hashem endows us with in order to strengthen these garments.
In Likutei Moharan I:29:3, Rebbe Nachman mentions the concept of garments, and the importance of their being kept clean. The Rebbe indicates how this concept is reflected in the idea brought in the Gemara (Shabbos 113), "Any talmid chacham on whose garments stains can be found is liable to the death penalty", because, as the Rebbe explains, Divine judgement with regard to them is more exacting. Clothes represent the Divine attribute of malchus--kingship--and thus, one who mistreats them is as if he has rebelled against the King Himself. Perhaps this also has to do with the fact that talmidei chachamim in particular represent the malchus of Torah, and are by association, ambassadors of Torah. They therefore must keep their "uniforms" neat and clean. The Rebbe goes on to explain that the tikkun has to take place on the level of giddin--sinews, of which there are 365 in the spiritual body, corresponding to the negative mitzvos. Tikkun in this area brings "whiteness" to the garments.
I was thinking that this teaching may also relate to another adage in the Brachos 28b, "Any talmid whose interior does not resemble his exterior is not a talmid", i.e. a person's appearance must reflect his true inner nature. Rabban Gamliel used this criterion to determine who could and who could not enter the beis midrash. Although this policy was rescinded, we can nevertheless understand the importance of this ethic. False appearances of piety and scholarship are hideous especially when they mask a person whose true inner life is perverse and crooked.
I think that, in light of the above sources, we can understand the Degel's metaphor. Our garments ultimately reflect who we are on the inside. Thus, if a person is careful to maintain his or her inner spiritual life, his or her garments will protect him or her from the "air" of this world. Perhaps one of the tools is learning how to be honest and transparent.