Sunday, March 01, 2009

Beauty and Honor

What is the Torah’s attitude about the concepts of beauty and honor? Torah after all is supposed to teach us about God's laws, ethical behavior, and inspire in us an awe of Heaven.

Hevel HaYofi’ – ‘Beauty is vanity’ says Shlomo HaMelech in Proverbs (31:30). Honor as well is something Chazal - our sages - tell us to run from. ‘Jealousy, desire, an honor take a person from the world’ says the Mishnah in Avos (4:21) When the Torah wishes to praise Moshe Rabbenu it says, ‘The man Moshe was exceedingly humble among all other men on the face of the earth’ (Numbers 12:3).

Does this mean there is no place for beauty or honor in Torah Judaism? Far from it. The Torah demonstrates the importance of it in this week's Parsha of Tetzaveh. In emphasizing the Bigdei Kehuna – the special priestly vestments - the Torah teaches us that the qualities of both beauty and honor have a place in our lives.

Honor is a destructive force if it is generated by selfishness. Selfishness tends to negate one’s granting honor and recognition to other people. Pursuing honor for oneself to the exclusion of others is synonymous with vanity. However, honoring all people on account of the image of God inhering within them is as essential to one’s personality as oxygen is to0 the lungs. ‘Who is honorable?’ ‘One who honors all beings’ (Avos 4:1). This concept is important in the relationship of parents and children and absolutely essential in the correlation of husband and wife. Mutual respect is the cement which holds a marriage together and injects it with stability.

What about the concept of beauty? One who says that Judaism does not care for outer beauty betrays his ignorance of the Torah. One need only analyze the meticulous care with which every detail in the Beis HaMikdash and its accessories were executed. The finest artists and craftsman were selected for the task. These men were knew how to make things look beautiful. The Torah knew that eye appeal can generate heart appeal.

The Vilna Gaon also notes the Torah’s mention of the physical beauty. By telling us about the physical beauty of Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel it shows that it considers physical beauty an asset. How then can Mishlei tell us that beauty is vanity? The answer is that it is beauty becomes vanity only when it is uncoupled with morality.

Zeh Keli V’Anvehu – ‘This is my God and I will beautify him’ (Exodus 15:2). Chazal divided the word ‘Anvehu’ into two words: Ani V’Hu. Meaning that one should emulate the Almighty. ‘Be similar to Him; just as he is merciful and compassionate, so must you be merciful and compassionate. Real beauty goes hand in hand with sanctity.

The priestly vestments that Moshe was to produce embodied the concepts of beauty and honor. They shone with honor as well as beauty – both physical and spiritual - in a harmonious integrated scheme that would inspire man and lift him heavenward.

*Based on the writings of Rav Ahron Soloveichik in his book, The Warmth and the Light.