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A man’s external appearance reflects the essence of his soul and his purpose on earth, in the same way a soldier’s uniform reflects the army he serves and his duty in it. When a man wears the uniform, everyone knows he is a soldier. When he doesn’t, they do not. An officer does not decide one day to wear a baseball cap instead of the army-issued cap. A general does not decide to exchange his jacket for a cotton T-shirt, no matter the weather outside. And so it is with the Hasid, his shtriemel and his beard. A uniform tells a story. It is a tale of one’s history, one’s purpose, one’s aspiration or accomplishment. The way one wears his uniform tells the story of his life.
I cannot exaggerate what it means for a Hasid to cut his beard. If you were taught what we were, then you would feel the same way.
There are three kinds of men walking the streets of Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights: those who trim, those who do not and those who want to but dare not. Every family has a man who cuts his facial hair — the husband, the brother, the nephew who finally puts a scissor to his beard — as others look on in horror or yearning. So when my friend Gitty appeared on my doorstep frustrated, angry — plotzing, really — I knew exactly how she felt. I told her that I knew many helpful excuses her husband could use, excuses which would enable him to leave home and her to enjoy life again.
Tell him to say that Moishe, the two-year-old toddler, cut his beard with arts-and-crafts scissors during his Shabbos nap. One moment he was napping; the next he was standing in a pile of his own crudely chopped hairs. Or he could say that he had oral surgery, the kind that required a trim so the infected part could be reached. There is also a rash that can sometimes develop, a rare infection, causing the hairs to fall out in two-inch pieces. Or the beard caught in a paper cutter, what with its merciless blade. There was the beard that caught on fire, the beard that thinned out overnight, the beard that accidentally got bleached while its owner was scrubbing the tzitzit clean. There were many such stories, dozens of excuses that few believed and made little sense but which helped many a man survive that first, terrible time.
Gitty went home and told it all to her husband. “Say it was the toddler,” she suggested as she pushed him out the door and locked it. “That’s just how two-year-olds are.”
“No one will believe me,” said Eilenberg miserably, but Gitty did not care, and though he memorized the reasons, by the time Eilenberg arrived at the shtieble, two steps past the front door, everything went blank, excuses dissipating from his mind like dust off the holy books. He saw his friends; they seemed glad to see him. They called his name, said, “Nu? The sick man is finally better.” Then, mid-gesture, they stopped.