I looked down at myself as I walked upstairs to our treadmill the other day – ratty T-shirt, sweatpants with the string missing, athletic socks that have lost their elastic – I should be wearing Lululemon, I thought, then I would really have a good work out! Of course, I immediately recognized my foolishness – while professional equipment and quality running shoes may actually have some impact on the quality of my exercise, the attractiveness (or price) or my clothing certainly will not. But it’s easy to fall prey to the illusion.

I know far too many people with gourmet kitchens (professional stoves, the sharpest Japanese knives, the latest gadgets) who never cook or people with curated libraries (wood-paneled walls, a globe on the floor, ladder to reach the shelves) who never read. But the rooms sure look beautiful. And it’s easy to be seduced by the packaging.

Even in spiritual pursuits, we can fall victim to the externals. “I want to be a Torah scholar,” my husband told his teacher many years ago. “Do you want to be a Torah scholar or do you want to learn Torah?” queried his mentor, the first implying public acclaim and recognition, the second the effort of working hard to master serious and important concepts.

How do we keep ourselves from making these mistakes? I’m not saying we shouldn’t surround ourselves with beautiful rooms – I’m just saying they don’t necessarily lead to accomplishment, just like putting on clothing specially made for exercise doesn’t automatically make us fit. Ask any rational person if dressing in fancy workout attire and wearing stylish sneakers makes them in better shape than the woman down the street dressed in her weekday jeans and T-shirt, their answer would no. But add a subtle twist to the question. Does it make you feel like you are in better shape? Here the honest answer may be yes.

I recently heard of an apartment building in New York with an elaborate gym and trainers available for the tenants. Apparently it is the practice of many of the residents to put on their gym clothes (Lululemon or other brand!) and go downstairs for a massage and a little stretching on their muscles. Then they return to their condos for a shower, ready to begin their day, their exercise regimen fully complete!

Because just like externals can change us, they can fool us also. If we aren’t feeling particularly happy and friendly, we want to act “as if” and we believe that the outside will affect the inside. Behavior modification is definitely a Jewish idea. But the key is that there has to be some actual behavior, not just some clothing that simulates behavior.

Just like a kitchen and a library can be both beautiful and functional, so can our clothing. But we need to beware of the danger of mistaking form for substance, style for function. (Isn't that what the Hanukkah battle was all about?)

I’m sticking with my old worn-out athletic wear. Since my treadmill is in a small upstairs room with no mirror there, there is no one to admire my style (or lack thereof) – not even me! And I can keep myself focused on the goal…