Several months ago I was waiting on line at a popular pizza store in Queens. Since it was Motzei Shabbos, many fellow Jews were similarly suffering from pizza withdrawal, and had beaten me to the store. I was going to have to wait a while.
Directly in front of me was a group of three young men who appeared to be in their late teens. One of them suddenly told his friends to give him their orders and that he would get to the front of the line. He then proceeded to go around the side of the store and cut directly in front of everyone — more than a dozen people who were patiently waiting their turn — right up to the counter. Either the counterman didn’t notice his maneuver, didn’t care, or didn’t want to chastise a customer. The order was taken.
I’m not going to sermonize about proper middos and derech eretz. No one reading this needs to be told that this behavior is unacceptable any more than we need to be told that swiping purses from old ladies is unacceptable.
However, what we do need to be told is what I decided to say, despite living in a culture that frowns on those who express disapproval with the ideas and behavior of others. I got the attention of the youths in front of me and said the following: “Please tell your friend that he should take off his yarmulka when he does something like that.”
They gave me a dumbfounded look. I reiterated my request and explained that a Jew who acts that way in public should not advertise to those around him that he is a Jew. They didn’t give me much of a reply, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever know if they even transmitted my message, let alone took it to heart.
What is also lost in our culture of labels and stereotypes is the true meaning and purpose of wearing a yarmulka. It is not to reflect one’s social peer group, political leanings, philosophical tendencies, or stated level of religious devotion. It is to serve as a constant reminder that the fear of Heaven should be upon us — nothing more and nothing less. Those who demonstrate that they have no fear of Heaven, either in a moment of weakness or as a chronic malady, should at the very least not publicly debase this symbol by acting contrary to their advertised commitment.
Perhaps even the act of removing the yarmulka at a critical moment would rouse one to abstain from the forbidden behavior, or at least plant a powerful seed of remorse to blossom at a later time. In any case, one surely receives no credit for wearing this symbol of spiritual commitment during times when his actions demonstrate a failing in that commitment. If anything, it only adds to the severity of the offense.
Indeed, the Gemara advises one who feels that his evil inclination is overpowering him to go to a place where he is unknown, dress himself in black, and indulge his temptation anonymously rather than desecrate Hashem’s name openly (Chagiga 16A). This is not a license to give in to one’s temptation, of course, but a warning not to compound the sin by misrepresenting Judaism (see Tosfos).
The mission of the Jew is to serve as an ambassador of God in this world. We should strive to grow into this role and to fulfill this most holy purpose in even the most mundane of our activities. If we fall short at times, God forbid, we must then endeavor to limit the damage. If we are not worthy of wearing a yarmulka at certain times or otherwise professing our spiritual identities, we should have the maturity to temporarily remove these accouterments.
On the other hand, if we are to proudly display our spiritual identities, let us be acutely aware of what we are representing and elevate ourselves to the highest of standards.