Thursday, January 7, 2010

Looks Can Be Deceiving

The first thing people usually judge when they meet another person is appearance, including what kind of clothing the person wears. This is quite understandable since it's the first thing we notice, but it's also vain and unproductive. Some of the most beautiful people on the outside can be some of the ugliest people on the inside, and those who do not appear as dignified can often be the sweetest human beings. Without using too many cliches, the lesson is obvious. While it's only human to judge what we see, a person's looks reveal virtually nothing about their character.

This lesson has been brought to the forefront with news stories about Jews who appeared to live a certain way, but instead engaged in evil behavior. In a recently reported case, a man who seemed to be a respectable Orthodox rabbi allegedly engaged in behavior so perverse that I will only provide this link and let my readers decide on whether or not to view the details. While stories such as these are very upsetting, they also provide striking reminders of how appearance and conduct can be in complete contradiction to one another.

Not to focus too much on the negative, there are many cases that drive home this point in a positive manner. For example, there is a true tzaddik (righteous man) living in my community who doesn't necessarily fit the stereotypical profile. He is a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), leads the daf yomi shiur (daily Talmud class) and always treats other people with dignity and respect. I'm not sure how most people would envision this person dressing, but it's doubtful they would guess correctly. He has worn all sorts of attire over the years, including cowboy hats, boots, colored yarmulkas and plaid shirts. I'm glad to say that almost everyone in our community recognizes this person for who he is and not simply by how he dresses.

In another timeless example, we recently read the Torah portions dealing with the story of Yosef (Joseph) being sold into slavery by his brothers. After all the dire circumstances to which he was subjected, Yosef quickly rose in the ranks to viceroy of Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh. When his brothers came to make amends for their actions and reunite the family, Yosef did not exactly look as they had remembered. He was older, distinguished and dressed in the garb of an Egyptian leader. Only after several impassioned encounters were they finally able to recognize him for who he actually was - a God-fearing Jew, who always kept the best interests of others at heart.

Once again, it's easy to figure out the moral of these stories. There are both great and terrible people who dress in modern clothing, just as there are both great and terrible people who dress in traditional religious attire. I'm sure everyone knows of an individual who doesn't look the part, but in reality leads a righteous life. As a result, the best barometer of character is a person's actions and behavior - not their appearance or clothing. By looking beyond the exterior, our chances greatly improve at finding people who truly lead lives of goodness.

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