When traveling, people watching is an activity I enjoy. You never really know if you read the person correctly, but it is fun to see where your mind wanders and the connections it makes.
In reality, you are mostly seeing a person’s externals and deciding what you can learn from them: clothing, haircut, shoes, and other accoutrements are some of the ways that we express our personality, our identity, and our beliefs. As such, they are also part of how we read other people. When I see someone sporting a beard, wearing a kippah, with tzitizis coming out of their waist band, I can assume that they are an Orthodox Jew, unless I have other cues that let me know that is wrong. It could be that they are wearing a kippah because they are bald, a beard because they don’t like shaving, and the fringes are actually just part of the shirt, which is fraying…
We say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and likewise, we can’t fully judge a person by their clothes; in fact, it could be that the statement made by a particular choice of clothing is, “Don’t judge me!”
It seems to me that our external expressions are usually a reflection of our internal selves. But shouldn’t a person who is comfortable in their skin feel no need to express themselves in a unique external manner? Their internal self-knowledge should be enough for them to express themselves.
This lesson comes across in a very powerful, yet subtle lesson in Parshat Beha’alotcha. During the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert, the prince of each tribe brings an offering to Hashem as part of the dedication. The interesting thing is that each prince brought exactly the same offering! On the first day, the prince of the tribe of Yehuda, Nachshon son of Aminadav, brings a wonderful offering of incense, livestock, vessels, wagons, etc. On the second day, the prince of the tribe of Yissachar, Nesanel, son of Tzuar, brings exactly the same offering. This continues for the entire period of the inauguration: each tribe’s prince brought the same offering that was brought on the first day!
Nachmanides explains that each prince had a totally different reason for bringing these particular donations. Once each prince arrived at the decision that their offering was the correct one, he did not let the fact that it was the same as the previous princes offering stop them. As long as my service is authentic, there is no need to change it, in order that others will see that I am unique. To do that would be disingenuous, and not reflective of my true service of Hashem.
A lesson we can learn from the princes of Israel is that we should be focusing solely on our connection to Hashem, trying to do the right thing, whether it is what others are doing, or different. And who cares if all the people watchers will be wrong about who we are!