by Rabbi Moshe Young
In Search of a Uniform
Some people never change their way of life. They fall into a
routine, repeated day-in and day-out. Like an old leather
shoe: No matter how you try to straighten it out, it always
falls back again into its creases.
You scan the faces of people in a crowd rushing every morning
to catch public transport on the way to work. So many of them
repeating today what they did yesterday and the day before.
Yet each one tells a different tale. Which one of the crowd
does indeed have a constant daily routine, and which one
hurries for the first time? Who is happy and who is not?
Just as each face is different, so does each one have his or
her own opinion. Multiply this scene by millions all over the
world, and you will find that there are no two people alike
There are also no two people who have a common purpose. Oh
yes! It might appear that as birds of a feather flock
together, so do people organize themselves into behaving as a
group. Yet people are, after all, not birds, so everyone
retains his individuality. Did not a wit once say many years
ago about public opinion in Israel that the population of
Israel is made up of that many millions of presidents of the
State of Israel?
Perhaps the rest of the world does not aspire to be
president, but they have personal opinions nonetheless. It is
only because there is common ground on many issues that
people form themselves into groups. But essentially each one
is on his own as he makes his way through life. So even
within the anonymous crowd, each individual stands as an
isolated unit, reflecting his own inimitable purpose in life,
and even without always realizing it, is either upwards or
downwards -- spiritually mobile.
We cannot talk here about the whole world, but we may talk
about ourselves. While we look at other Jews, we often make
comparisons. We judge the lifestyles of others and we
classify ourselves. We put everyone into a specific category.
We look at the clothes people wear and we mentally allocate
them to groups which are socially defined. It's not designer
labels we look for, but uniforms which label a culture, an
attitude or a tradition.
Within the orthodox camp there is an assortment of men's
uniforms and women's uniforms. Men's hats: brim up or brim
down, black, blue, grey, no hat at all but just a
yarmulke. Then what size yarmulke? What color?
Coats, jackets, shoes and shirts! Long sheitals, short
sheitals: custom-made sheitals, short
sheitals with hats, long sheitals with hats.
Skirts sweeping the floor: denim or cotton?
Every uniform tells a tale. We take note and we make
decisions about whom to ignore, whom to avoid and with whom
we wish to associate. We cannot say that we should
automatically associate and socialize with everyone and
ignore uniforms by saying that, after all, they are all
Jewish people and orthodox, because the decision by the
individual to adopt a uniform sends out a clear signal that
he or she subscribes to a specific ideology. Each one might
like to say, "Join me!" but diverse uniforms are there to
protect their chosen identities and reject the identities of
others by saying, "Don't join me!"
There is no real battle. It is more like a natural instinct
to protect and preserve one's own territory. So each group
has its own "rules and regulations." You might want to change
to a different group, but the uniform goes with it, and if
you don't change your uniform you will be viewed with
suspicion by the group you are trying to identify and mix
Baalei teshuvoh have a particularly hard time with
this. Someone who comes from a non-orthodox background
usually has conflicting ideas about what defines orthodoxy,
which often creates confusion. He sees so many contradictions
among the orthodox. There is something mysterious which moves
him towards keeping Torah and mitzvos and, despite the
apparent contradictions which confuse him, he does not hold
back. He is drawn towards the ideals of Torah, the honesty,
the orderliness, the purity, the holiness and the commitment
to the higher authority of halochoh.
Yet he sees contradictory standards in all these virtues,
where some things are adhered to and others ignored. He sees
both honesty and dishonesty, orderliness and slovenly
conduct, purity and uncouth and unrefined behavior, holiness
and materialism, and punctilious observance of
halochoh and carelessness towards it. Yet he is
prepared to change his lifestyle to become a servant of
Hashem and His Torah.
Some people who want to better themselves spiritually often
have a reluctance to identify with those possessing higher
religious standards, even if they admire those standards. It
may be because they see religious inconsistencies. For
example, they might see a lack of honesty or too much
materialism or bad middos in those people. So they
resort to wearing different `uniforms.'
With some groups of baalei teshuvoh who are for the
first time experiencing Torah life, their previous social
background is often reflected in their `uniform.' Their
determination to become frum and to leave their social
group reflects a mindset of "do your own thing" in the face
In many cases this "do your own thing" lingers on in Torah
observance. There is the belief that slovenly dress or a
messy home, casual and disorganized behavior in children
generally and around the Shabbos table, are all part of
"happy Yiddishkeit." But there is nothing further from
the truth. Rav Yisroel Salanter zt"l, in his thirteen
basic essential directives in middos of a Torah Jew, a
happy Jew, includes orderliness and cleanliness.
Many who have kept Torah and mitzvos from birth tend to view
all baalei teshuvoh as a homogeneous group, as if they
have all suddenly turned to face one way and proceed to the
path of Torah and truth. As their faces, however, are not the
same as each other, so neither are their opinions and
motives. They really are not a single genre, because in
reality, every Jew needs to be a baal teshuvoh every
day, and it is only a matter of degree which seems to
separate the labeled baal teshuvoh from the religious
baal teshuvoh. Nevertheless, the perception is that
there is a wide difference between one who takes a leap into
orthodoxy and one who wants to redress lapses in
HaRav Dessler zt"l does in fact show that there is a
difference between the two. Each one has its advantages and
disadvantages. One who has never known about Torah has the
advantage of not possessing in his subconscious self the
characteristic of rebelliousness against Torah,
meridah. He does not have the status of a
mored, yet he lacks knowledge of what to do and what
not to do when he decides to tread the path of Torah.
An orthodox baal teshuvoh who has had lapses in his
mitzvos and religious conduct is at a disadvantage because
rebelliousness has become rooted in his personality, and the
danger of falling back into his sinful weaknesses, his old
aveiros, is greater. Yet he has the advantage that
when he decides to repent, he knows exactly how to conduct
himself because he has been there before.
HaRav Dessler divides the teshuvoh of all baalei
teshuvoh into two categories. One he calls teshuvoh
protis and the other he calls teshuvoh kelolis.
The difference is this: A person is traveling on a road and
arrives at the crossroads. By turning one way, either to the
right or to the left, he automatically rejects the opposite
way entirely and goes further and further away from it. He
has cut himself off totally from the other direction. This,
in terms of teshuvoh, is a complete rejection of the
past and there is no connection with past conduct. This is
teshuvoh kelolis -- an overall teshuvoh.
However, there is the person who recognizes spiritual
weaknesses in himself and resolves to modify his activities
for the better. For example, someone who is an avid
television watcher, Rachmono litzlan. He watches
everything. In a moment of introspection, he decides that
from then on he will watch only documentaries or educational
programs. He has indeed done teshuvoh, but because he
did not reject the television completely, it is a limited
teshuvoh. There is some improvement, although he is
misguided. This HaRav Dessler calls teshuvoh protis.
The decision to limit his TV viewing cannot be compared to a
crossroads where a fundamental decision has to be taken.
So it is not only the person who becomes frum who has
done teshuvoh kelolis, but even the frum person
who makes the decision to completely reject a former habit or
aveiroh, and becomes punctilious in the observance of
a mitzvah or middoh in which he had been previously
lax, has also done teshuvoh kelolis.
Every orthodox Jew always wants, sometimes deep down, to
better himself spiritually. The potential for both forms of
teshuvoh is there. Yet the inner conflict with the
yetzer hora takes its toll on all of us. Some might go
a long way in subduing the yetzer hora, while others
are unable to muster enough strength to change, so they plod
on in the way which has been most comfortable for them up
till then. Each person is different, and who but Hashem knows
the level of effort people put into their avodoh?
Outward appearances do not admit to the level of effort, but
uniforms often reflect the result of the effort.
Today we live in a world where human rights have become a
buzzword. No one is a private individual any longer. Everyone
is either a victim or an oppressor. Words are scrutinized,
people watch for politically correct speech. The uniform has
to be just right.
We Jews wear the uniform of the victim, but the world sees us
as the eternal oppressor. We need to turn to Hashem.
We all have different ways in turning to Hashem. Some
emphasize one thing; others stress something else. By looking
at a fellow Jew we cannot see where his priorities lie.
However, the time has gone when we can pick and choose where
we will excel spiritually. We might have had in the past the
luxury of teshuvoh protis. Now is the time for
teshuvoh kelolis so that while we might all look
different and our personalities are different, there will be
just one direction we will all have to face, and one uniform.
That will be to serve Hashem "as one person and with one
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