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All Dressed Up and No Place to Grow

Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

“What do you want to be for Purim?”  This refrain is heard by children around the world months before Adar already.  In the United States, it’s often heard on November 1, when, for some inexplicable reason, Purim costumes are on sale.

Younger children often wish to be characters they’ve learned about in school, and we see so many adorable Mordechais and lovely Queen Esthers running around on short little legs.  Occasionally, you will see an Achashveirosh since some boys like the idea of royalty.

As we get older, the costumes tend to change.  No longer content to be the good guys, we start to see Hamans (with the requisite eyeliner mustaches) and Vashtis (complete with pimples and tail).  Did I mention pirates? Prison inmates? How about hobos, hippies, politicians, and other assorted villains?

I remember dressing up in eighth or ninth grade with slicked-back hair, a black leatherette jacket (Members Only, anyone?) and a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, with “TELZ ANGELS” emblazoned on the back.

What is it about dressing up that makes us want to be rebels?  I think it is that society has popularized the “bad boy” image.  The kid with the best shtuch (zinger) to the teacher is admired by the other kids, and the “cool” kids are the ones who do what they want, not what they’re told.

There is a mystical concept that on Purim we dress up to show that even though on the outside we may look like all the nations of the world, and we may also be involved in aveiros (chas v’shalom), deep down underneath  beats the heart and soul of a true Jew who wants to serve Hashem.  That aside, I think there is a big lesson we can learn from it.

The language of Chazal is, “Adam nifal k’fi p’ulosav,” a person is “made” according to his actions.  If we act in a certain way, even if we don’t believe it now, we will become that way.  The Rambam says that a person should never walk into his home in a bad mood. Is the Rambam advocating being untruthful?  What if you had a really bad day and you’re not in the mood to be jolly? Too bad. Fake it. Why? Because the others in your home don’t have to be brought down by YOUR bad mood, and you will also become happy.  To borrow a phrase: “Fake it till you make it.”

If we dress like people without boundaries, we begin to long for that lifestyle.  If we act like we don’t care, we end up not caring. Instead, we should dress like what we aspire to be.  I remember how excited and impressed I was walking in Meah Shearim when I saw the cutest Kohen Gadol costume.  THAT’S what kids should be dressing up as, someone who is the ultimate Eved Hashem!

If you ask someone why he doesn’t wear a hat for davening, he will likely give you the well-prepared stock reply: “The Mishna Berura says you should wear a hat because you wouldn’t appear before an important person without a hat.  But since President Kennedy went to his inauguration without a hat, it is no longer the custom to wear a hat to be “fully dressed,” so the halachah has changed.”  

OK, so he can make a halachic, if somewhat robotic, argument.  But do you know what R’ Yaakov Kaminetsky z”l said about it?  He said yeshivish people still wear the hat to show that they as a group associate with people who wish to continue to show respect for Hashem by wearing a hat, even if fashion may have changed.”  (This is a paraphrase of what I’ve heard, not a direct quote, so if I wrote it wrong please don’t blame R’ Yaakov.) In that case, the question becomes more how much he wants to show respect for Hashem, and it’s not really about the hat at all.

In other words, the clothing helps us identify what we want to be and become it as well.  How many mere mortals become supermen when they put on a fireman’s uniform and rush into a burning building?  I know I’ve heard the story of how my brother, with a towel cape tied around his collar, was about to jump off the second-floor ledge and fly when my mother interrupted him and made him come inside the window. He was so disappointed that he had to come in because he knew he would be able to fly. I’m sure that’s not the only story of its kind.  

Have you ever driven someone’s fancy car and felt like you were important?  I borrowed a Grand Marquis for a date once, and when I picked up the girl the next time in an Olds 88, the girl’s father said, “What happened to the Lincoln?”  I felt bad for him at the foolishness of the question. Aside from the fact that he didn’t know the difference between a Mercury and a Lincoln, I had only borrowed the cars. What difference did it make what I drove if they weren’t mine?  In fact, even if I drive a fancy car that is mine, does it make me a better person? Or perhaps it is the opposite?

But that’s what happens too often.  We fall prey to the importance of the costume and not what it’s covering up.  Even good things can become disfigured that way. I knew of a fellow who would not let his sons grow payos behind their ears (which was the style) because he didn’t want them to feel they had arrived when they were just dressing up.  (They grew to become fine talmidei chachamim with sterling middos.)  

When I got married, I wouldn’t get a silver atara on my tallis because when I was in yeshivah it became a status symbol of “How many rows did you get?”  I explained that I didn’t want an atara because I used to want one – but not for the right reason.

As a child, I was very shy.  I was also a very good actor.  I decided to act like I wasn’t shy, and not too long after that, I became the gregarious, outgoing fellow I am today.  Ever heard of second nature? It means that you can change the way you were born and begin to do things naturally after you do them a certain way for a while.

In short, I think the question isn’t “What do you want to be for Purim” but “What do you want to be?”  When you figure that out, you should start dressing and acting the part, and pretty soon it won’t just be a costume. It’ll be the real you.

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