Since Sukkot I have been learning morning seder at the Mir Yeshiva.
In order to not stand out I had to change my style of dress. Formerly I might have worn khaki colored slacks and a blue shirt with a kippa seruga (knitted). Currently each day I dress wearing a white shirt and black slacks and with a black velvet yarmulke. I am not one who likes to conform. More to my nature would be that if everyone wore black I would wear grey. But as I have grown older I feel less need to assert my anti-establishment sentiments. And while the black and white dress would not be me, I wear it out of respect for the Yeshiva and the men I learn with. I had become so 'yeshiveshe' that I even took my haircut with the Yeshiva barbers.
But I had remained resistant to one change, donning the black felt hat. I had given up black hats more than 30 years ago, some years after I left Yeshiva. To put on a black hat felt like surrender. I hesitated to give up the last vestige of my independent self and accept the black hat and with it the label of hareidi, which I don't feel I am. For several months I wrestled with what is the right thing for me to do. I davened Mincha each day in the Beit Midrash with 400 others all in black hats while I remained the lone hold-out in my black. albeit velvet, kipa.
The struggle with the black hat was not so much about conforming to the norms of the Yeshiva but rather about surrendering the spontaneity that I experience when I can express myself in a style that feels true to me. I will confess something here. Since I came to Mir and with it changed my dress, I noticed that while my learning grew in quality and quantity, my davening got weaker. I used to have daily conversations with G-d that all of a sudden disappeared from my routine. Under the influence of the Yeshiva I became so focused on doing what is right that I lost some of the joy in Divine service, 'avodat Hashem'. I know its important to be 'good' and that the Yeshiva environment encouraged, but how about being 'happy' and in love with G-d. Isn't that just as important. As I became 'frumer' I seemed to lose the joy. Fear of G-d dominated over love of G-d.
Would wearing the black hat be the final straw. Yes I would look and feel hareidi. But 'hareid' in ivrit means fearful. Do I want to be 'hareid', so much protected from doing wrong that I lose the 'joie de vivre'.
Ah, but then I saw the parsha of this week, that of T'zaveh. In it the Torah details the clothes to be worn by both the Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, and the regular kohanim. One article of clothing intrigued me. The Torah requires the Kohain Gadol to wear a 'm'eel' a long beautiful robe. The Torah describes the robe in detail. As part of its design it is to contain bells. Why bells? The Torah tells us that the bells were on the robe so that "his sound will be heard when he goes into the Holy and when he leaves so that he will not die".
The Medrash tells us that the bells were on his robe to teach us an important lesson in 'derech eretz', proper conduct. When one enters a place, even his/her, home, s/he should always knock, and let anyone present in the home know s/he is enterring lest s/he enter and take the other by surprise and cause them upset. The Kohain Gadol was told to make himself heard as he entered, even G-d's place, so as to teach us that we always need to announce our coming.
Okay, that's a powerful directive. But that only explains why the Kohain Gadol's sound should be heard on entering the Holy. Why does the Torah say that his sound needs to be heard both on his entering and his leaving? Why does he need to make noise when he exits the Holy too?
I reflected on this in the context of my dilemma with the black hat.
The Kohain Gadol was called by G-d to do specific tasks in the Bait Hamikdash, the Temple. His work was clearly defined. He had no room for self-expression in his service. He did precisely as the ritual in tradition required. Not only his service as circumscribed. Even his dress allowed no choice of his own. The clothes, while beautiful, were in accord with the Torah mandate. The Kohain Gadol had no room to express his personal style or taste. In that context we might wonder if the 'self' of the Kohain Gadol my not get lost in the process. I mean, he had to conform entirely to dictums from without. There was no room on the surface for self-expression. Would he feel like me in the Mir, and his fear of Hashem be so dominant that it compromised his love of Hashem?
It is to this issue that the Torah speaks when it calls on him to put bells on his robe. The Torah tells us that the bells were so 'his voice' will be heard when he enter and when he leaves. The noise of the robe is 'his' sound in the Holy. The Torah wants to make clear that while so much of the ritual and dress is determined from without, the Kohain Gadol must not lose himself. He must find a way to bring his uniqueness, his self into the service in the Holy. And what's more, even on his way out, as impressive and over-powering as the sacredness of the Holy may be, the Kohain Gadol must make himself heard, that he should remain true to the uniqueness of his individual soul and personal gifts.
With that thought in mind I decided yes, I could wear the black hat.
Wearing it would be respectful of the world of the Yeshiva I learn in. Would I lose my self and my uniqueness in the process? Not if I take the lesson from the Kohain Gadol and its imperative. True, on the outside I conform. But I must be insistent that my voice be heard, even while wearing the black hat. Conformity to ritual and custom provides only the shell, a shell that may protect one from danger if one relied entirely on one's self for direction.
Indeed it helps to belong to a group. But that does not free one from the responsibility to be true to one's genuine self in service to Hashem. On the contrary, the trappings to which one conforms make it safe to make one's voice heard and know it is in the service of the Divine! No, It makes is mandatory to make one's unique self heard in avodat Hashem.
Wearing the black hat, conforming to the group, does not free me from self-expression. The Kohain Gadol, in the designated clothes and doing the prescribed service was mandated to make 'his' noise.
I may look indistinguishable from everyone else in the Mir but that only makes it more imperative for me to be me!