A few weeks ago, I was arriving at my synagogue for a board meeting. One of my fellow board members looked at my shorts and sneakers, and said “Greg, you look like you rolled in from the beach.” I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but I did notice that everyone else in the meeting was dressed business casual.
Then yesterday, when I was preparing to lead a Torah Study in a few weeks, I opened The Book of Legends, (a great compendium of the Talmud), and my eyes fell on this passage
He who walks in the marketplace with his shoes unlaced is among those who are of haughty spirit. He who walks with his cloak thrown over his shoulder or his cap tilted back or sits crosslegged or holds the straps of the tefillin in his hands and throws them behind him while walking in the marketplace – he is among those who are of haughty spirit. – Derrik Eretz Rabbah chapter 11, The Book Of Legends p 711:241
Not How a Mensch Would Act
Arrogance was my fatal flaw in the corporate world. And as I thought back to that board meeting, I decided not to bother to get changed. I thought to myself “They know me. What difference does it make anyway? I am really tired, and have had a rough week.”
Looking back on it, I am reminded of a passage in the medieval Mussar masterpiece Orchot Tzadikim (The Ways of the Righteous). about a man who uses every excuse in the world not to get out of bed, starting with “There is a lion in the street.” Spoiler: there was no lion in the street and he knew that. And I know that dressing appropriately is a sign of respect for the institution and my fellow board members. It was a failure of Enthusiasm, and of Humility. Enthusiasm, because I gave in to laziness, and Humility because I was arrogant for acting as if I did not need to follow the conventions of others.
Mussar is a practice of personal elevation, and how we dress is an important part of the journey. Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, emphasized immaculate dress as a way of honoring the Divine within. He didn’t want his students wearing tattered clothing like the stereotype of a starving yeshiva student. Check out how dapper his students look in this picture above, which dates from the 20s in the British Mandate of Palestine.
You don’t need to be a Rabbi or psychiatrist to know that dressing well is part of healthy self esteem. Here is a Mussar Practice that we can take from this lesson.
****Here’s the Mussar Practice***
Be mindful of what you are wearing. Before you get dressed, think about the day to come. Is what you are going to wear respectful and appropriate to the people you are going to see. Will you be honoring the greatness within yourself? Are you dressing blandly because you don’t feel good about yourself?
At the same time, ask yourself if you are using your look or dress to try to overcome a hollow place within. In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis shared the story of one of his students who realized that she always dressed in bright colors and sat in the front row because of her insecurities. When she went to a meeting in beige and sat in the back, it helped her connect with others better. And she turned her focus from her dress towards building self-love. (EH p 47).
When we dress like a Mensch, we are comfortable in our shoes, respectful to the people we will be with, and look good.
Remember – each and every one of has what it takes to be a Mensch, a person of outstanding character. In the grand scheme of things, what it a big deal that I wore shorts to a Board Meeting? Not really. But it is a good opportunity for growth on the path of the Mensch.
Making mindful choices about how you dress can open the door to balance and healing in the Humility and other soul traits.
Want to try Mussar in community?