Boarding the plane for my 6:00 AM flight from LaGuardia, bleary-eyed from too little sleep, I forced myself to offer a moderately enthusiastic good morning to the smiling steward as I crossed over the jet way and through the hatch. The steward echoed my greeting, then added, “You look very sharp today.”
I felt my eyebrows rise up toward my hairline. This isn’t a comment one hears every day. I thanked him and made my way down the aisle to find my seat.
Mid-way through the flight I wandered up toward the front of the plane. The steward stepped forward immediately when he saw me. “I hope I didn’t offend you earlier,” he said.
“Why would I take offense at a compliment?” I asked.
“Well, you never know these days,” he replied. “But you stood out so strikingly from the other passengers that I had to comment.”
I hadn’t considered my ensemble in any way remarkable. I was wearing a $120 gray suit, a $5 blue tie, and a black sweater vest that was a gift from my mother.
The steward wasn’t finished, however: “When you headed down the aisle, I saw that you were Jewish,” he said. “I’ve noticed that Jewish people are always conscious of how they dress.”
It was a nice kiddush Hashem to start my day, all the more so because it seemed to fly in the face of the stereotype that Torah Jews are unconcerned with the finer points of self-presentation.
I went on to explain to the steward – who showed more interest than many of my students – that the Jewish value of modesty has less to do with how much skin we leave exposed than with the projection of human dignity and our awareness of the sanctity that resides within every human being. We may reside within a shell of flesh and blood, but essentially we are beings of spirituality. By dressing in a way that is smart yet simple, restrained yet distinguished, those around us cannot help but take notice and, on some level, absorb a portion of our appreciation that the physical is meant to serve the spiritual and that our external form is merely a garment for the soul.
The interrelationship of the revealed and the concealed should occupy our thoughts as we approach the holiday of Purim. The apparent coincidences of the Purim story, the supernatural reversal of fortune, and the illusion of peril that prodded the Jews of Persia to rediscover faith in the wisdom of their Torah leaders… these are all part of the theme of hester ponim – the hidden face of G-d – that lies at the heart of the holiday. The physicality that surrounds us masks the spiritual reality of our universe, and by conscripting the material into service of the spiritual we succeed in showing the world (and reminding ourselves) who we are and why we are here.