When I was a boy used to read war stories; often there was a plot where a group of commandos had to infiltrate some enemy base, so they wore enemy uniforms, but there was only one fellow who spoke the language fluently, so he would do all the talking.
The point is that it’s a lot easier to change one’s clothing to look like some other nationality, but changing the language that one speaks is a lot harder.
In this light there is a striking difficulty in Rashi in today’s פרשה:
יושב הנגב, זה עמלק, ושנה לשונו לדבר בלשון כנען, כדי שהיהיו ישראל מתפללים להקב"ה לתת כנענים בידם והם אינם כנענים. ראו ישראל לבושיהם כלבושי עמלקים ולשונם לשון כנען, אמרו נתפלל סתם, שנאמר אם נתון תתן את העם הזה בידי.
It seems עמלקים had learned a lesson from their defeat in previous engagement. There whenever משה raised his hands the Jews were victorious. As Mishnah explains: וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או שוברות מלחמה אלא כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלים כלפי מעלה ומשעבדים את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מנצחים. So עמלקים knew that Jews have secret weapon – the power of תפילה. So this time around they hatched a plan – they’ll disguise themselves as כנענים, so Jews will daven to defeat כנענים – not realizing that they weren’t כנענים at all – but עמלקים.
So what did they do – they all started speaking כנעני. Which must have been frightfully difficult – they would have had to take crash Berlitz courses.
But the Jews noticed – they may speak כנעני, but they’re dressed like עמלקים. Suspicious! So they davened סתם.
Here’s what I don’t understand. They went to all the trouble to speak כנעני – why not dress like כנענים too! Isn’t that an obvious oversight?
There is a wonderful answer to this question that is quoted in the name of the חידושי הרי"ם
But first I’ll preface a מעשה. In Ponovizh on Purim a fellow dressed up as a חסידישע רבי, put on a שטריימעל and a silk בעקעשע, and a retinue of בחורים dressed as his חסידים. And in that fashion they paid a call on the Rosh Yeshiva, ר' דוד פוברסקי. R’ Dovid enjoyed the joke, as the boys presented to him the erstwhile bochur, “dressed up”, they said, “as a חסידישע רבי”. To which R’ Dovid responded – “What do you mean dressed up as a רבי?” How can you “dress up” as a רבי? After all, what does a real רבי have that he doesn’t have? A רבי has a לבוש, and he has a לבוש. A רבי has חסידים, and he has חסידים. He’s not dressed up as a רבי – he is a רבי.
I don’t imagine the חידושי הרי"ם – the first גערער רבי – would have taken such a jaundiced attitude to the institution of the רביסטע. Nor would I, for that matter. But he did use a similar idea to answer the difficulty that we raised in Rashi.
Said the חידושי הרי"ם – the whole point of the exercise was so that when the Jews davened to defeat the כנענים the תפילה should miss it’s mark – because they’re not really כנענים, but עמלקים.
For that reason, they couldn’t make the disguise too good. Because if they would have not only spoken כנעני, but also dressed כנעני – then they would have really been כנענים! Remember the melting pot – you learn to speak English like an American, and dress like an American – and that way you become an American. So עמלק had to be careful – not to go completely native. They had to convey the impression of כנענים – without actually becoming כנענים. So they spoke כנעני – to fool the Jews into thinking that they must really be כנענים – but at the same time they retained their own dress of עמלק.
מאויבי תחכמני. We can sometimes learn important lessons from our enemies. A great deal of our identity is, in fact, determined by the way we speak, and the way we dress. Together they are the great badge of belonging; the great solvent of the melting pot. And if we talk like a כנעני, and dress like a כנעני – then in a real sense we become a כנעני. And, more generally, if we talk like גוים, and dress like גויים, then we become פאר'גוישט.
The חתם סופר writes in a תשובה that that is why Yiddish was invented – because language is so powerful in defining our separate and unique identity.
It for this reason many Jews to this day insist on speaking אידיש and dressing in distinctively recognizable clothing.
But we can take care to speak and to dress Jewishly, even without necessarily speaking אידיש or dressing as חסידים. If we guard our speech from profanity, and not only from profanity but from any hint of vulgarity, of coarseness, of lewdness, of innuendo, then that is also Jewish speech. If we keep our speech free of slander, of gossip, of meanness and vindictiveness, then that is Jewish speech. And if we punctuate our speech with דברי תורה, we יראת שמים, with Jewish thought and feeling, then that is Jewish speech, whatever language it is couched in.
And likewise with our clothing. Jewish clothing doesn’t have to emulate what they wore in Europe 60 years ago, or in Poland 200 years ago. But it does have to be unassuming, modest and decorous.
We all know that צניעות is the cornerstone of Jewish dress. But what is sometimes forgotten is that צניעות is not expressed only by the length of a hemline. Clothing is an expression of character – indeed, in Hebrew the word for character traits – מידות – also means clothing – מידו בד. צניעות in dress means dress that expresses צניעות in character, a total effect of quiet modesty.
There is a growing and disturbing tendency in the community for women to dress in ways that while appearing to toe the line of הלכה, are, in fact – and in ways both subtle and obvious – quite provocative.
A few months ago my wife had occasion to attend a local שטיבעל for a שמחה and she left in the middle of davening and came back to our shul, because she was so offended by the way that the women were dressed there – all within the supposed confines of הלכה, but in total effect the very opposite of what צניעות means.
We daven each day for הקב"ה to shower ברכות on כלל ישראל. Let us make sure that our תפילות indeed hit their mark; that our speech and our dress identify us clearly for who we are, גוי אחד בארץ, a unique and holy people.