A wandering Jew wanders into a small flophouse late one cold and stormy night.

“All full up,” says the innkeeper. “Two, three to a bed. Let’s see . . . We’ve got a seven-foot Cossack in one of the cots up on the top floor. You’re kinda small—you can try climbing in beside him.”

Thankfully accepting the gracious offer, the wandering Jew climbs the stairs to the garret, but not before asking the innkeeper to wake him well before dawn. “Got a train to catch,” he says importantly.

Before he knows it, there’s a hand shaking him awake. “It’s well before dawn,” says a voice. “Your train.”

He dresses hurriedly in the dark and rushes to the train station. On the way to the platform he passes a large mirror in an ornate frame. A Cossack in uniform looks back at him.

“That idiot innkeeper!” he exclaims in dismay. “He woke up the Cossack instead of the wandering Jew. I’ll never make it back in time to wake myself up in time to catch my train!”

Whoever it was that referred to the human being as “the naked ape” got it all wrong. Man is the only truly clothed creature—a creature who attires him- or herself not only for warmth and protection, but to alter, enhance, even transform, his very identity.

Indeed, the identities we tailor for ourselves have several notable advantages over the inborn variety. They can improve upon our natural self by accentuating our good features, and by de-emphasizing—or even employing to advantage—our less desirable ones. What’s even better is that they’re completely removable: if they don’t wear well, or if they turn out to have been a mistake in the first place, we can replace them with a different set.

Chassidic teaching refers to our faculties of thought, speech and action as the three “garments” of the soul. The areas in which we choose to direct our thoughts, the things we say and the manner in which we say them, and the way that we act towards others and towards ourselves—these are the “clothes” we fashion for our souls.

With these garments, we can project our character and personality in ways that amplify its positive features, subdue its negative ones, and even express a negative trait in a positive way. We dress an abstract feeling in the words “I love you.” We cover up animosity with civil behavior. We bundle an overblown ego into the urge to become the biggest donor to charity in the community. And if we find ourselves wearing threadbare ideas or ugly behavior patterns, we remind ourselves that these are just garments: dump them in the hamper and get yourself a more tasteful wardrobe.

Of course, a more basic approach to self-improvement is to improve the “body” of our soul—its character and personality. But it’s a lot easier to buy a nice suit than to go on a diet. Besides, who knows—the sight of your soul in a nice suit might be just the thing to motivate you to get its body in shape.

Hypocrisy? Certainly. Imagine a world in which everyone acted better, holier and more compassionately than they really are. Perhaps what our world needs is some more hypocrisy.