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23 Kislev 5761 - December 20, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Beautiful People and Animal Beauty: An Essay For Chanukah

By HaRav Yitzchok Pinchos Goldwasser

Borrowed Glory

The mishnah in Megilloh (8) says, "Rabbon Shimon ben Gamliel said, `Even seforim were only allowed to be written in Greek.' "

The gemora explains that the reason for this is, "because the posuk (Bereishis 9:27) says, `G-d will broaden Yefes and he will reside in the tents of Shem,' [meaning that] the beauty of Yefes will be in the tents of Shem" (Megilloh 9).

Rashi explains, "This refers to the Greek language, which is the most beautiful of all of those of Yefes' descendants." Although the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillin 1:19), seems to understand that this refers to the Greek alphabet, the Kesef Mishnah explains that he too, is of the opinion that it refers to the language.

We are presented here with a balanced approach to the concept of external beauty. On the one hand, it is an idea that has been "imported" from the gentile nations, whose relation to Klal Yisroel is like that of the outer peel to the inner fruit. Their lands are also known as chutz lo'oretz, strengthening the idea that they occupy a spiritually external plane, in comparison to Eretz Yisroel. This suggests that beauty is something which only has meaning in the revealed, outward, aspect of things.

Beauty is appreciated by the human eye, which is indeed only capable of assessing outward appearances. The more externally oriented a person is, the more important outward beauty is to him as opposed to quality and inner content. Thus, the source of the concept of beauty is not from Shem but from Yefes (who derives his name from it).

On the other hand, Noach's blessing to his son shows us that there is a place for the beauty of Yefes within the tents of Shem. The name Shem signifies the interaction with a thing's "name" i.e. its real, inner content, rather than its external aspect. However, in order to sway the physical senses and to influence the emotions, Shem must also address outward appearances, clothing elements in external beauty whose preciousness he wants his physical side to appreciate and to treat with honor.

This is the basis of the mitzvoh, " `Zeh Keili ve'aneveihu,' beautify mitzvoh performance before Him; make a beautiful succah; a beautiful lulav and a beautiful shofar; beautiful tzitzis; a beautiful sefer Torah . . . " (Shabbos 133).

Our Distorted View

The beauty of the gentiles however, also has different levels. The sort of beauty which is elevated by an enlightened, believing gentile, who can be numbered among the pious of the nations, within whom a spirit of humanity flickers, is not the same sort that is elevated by members of "the nation that is like a donkey" (Niddah 17), whose entire structure is dominated by its materialistic side, and for whom beauty is only important inasmuch as it serves its physical senses. This is the reason that beauty is only referred to in connection with the descendants of Yefes and not those of Chom, for the latter are virtually incapable of differentiating between the delicacy of genuine beauty and the crudity of crass materialism.

In our times, our own understanding of beauty has become doubly distorted. First, as Jews, we have lost our pride in our descent from Shem. We have forgotten that beauty did not originate with us. It has however, assumed such importance for us that packaging has become more important to us than content - - the appearance of the formica, for example, is more important than the quality of the wood underneath it. Our motto has become, "Don't look at what is inside the pitcher but at the pitcher itself."

Second, the contemporary descendants of Yefes have descended to the level of the descendants of Chom. Desire (lust) has largely replaced pride as the focal point of their aspirations. Their animal spirit has displaced much of their more refined, human spirit. Today's human beings are involved with beautifying their drives and adorning their desires to the point where all the arts -- music, illustration, sculpture, song and literature -- have become handmaidens to the conflagration of animalistic desire.

The result of this is that the very idea of beauty is no longer understood to mean human beauty but has come to mean animal beauty. This shift finds its way to us, from the nations amongst whom we live in exile.

Even our community, that aligns itself with the holy yeshivos, is not completely isolated from this trend. One of the lessons that we had to learn from the war in which we had to protect ourselves from chemical weaponry, was that if the room one is in is not completely sealed, then even poison from far way can have an effect!

This essay's purpose is to get us to put on our "gas masks" in time, in other words, to ensure that we don't imbibe from our surroundings an attitude that is too appreciative of beauty in general and of its distorted contemporary presentation in particular.

Animal Beauty and Human Beauty

"And behold, seven cows rose from the river, of beautiful appearance and of full, healthy flesh, and they grazed in the meadow" (Bereishis 41:2). Rashi explains that the words, "Of beautiful appearance," are "an allusion to the days of plenty, when people appear beautiful to one another, when nobody looks askance upon what anybody else has."

This seems very strange. Why didn't Rashi match the allusion perfectly to the second descriptive phrase that the posuk uses about the cows: "of full, healthy flesh," which more obviously signifies fullness and satiety from plenty?

Apparently Rashi did not do so because animal beauty, which is a matter of physical health and power, is not the same as that which is regarded as beauty in humans. Human beauty owes itself to spiritual qualities, such as good character traits and delicacy of spirit, which are reflected in the features of the face which is the window to the soul (`face' in Hebrew is ponim, which is also the word for `inside, interior'). Only this can be considered beauty with regard to people.

[Thus, although the first phrase, "of beautiful appearance," is speaking about animals and is therefore an imperfect allusion, it is still closer in sense to the beauty of humans during the years of plenty, than the second phrase, "of full, healthy flesh," which has nothing at all to do with human beauty.]

The Essence of Beauty

Let us expand this idea. In the blessing which Moshe Rabbenu gave to the tribe of Binyomin, the posuk (Devorim 33:12) says, "And He shall dwell between his shoulders." Rashi explains that, "The Beis Hamikdosh was built on the highest part of Binyomin's territory, only it was twenty- three amos below Ein Eitam which was where Dovid Hamelech had originally wanted to build it, as we find in Zevochim: `They said, go down a little, for the posuk says, "And He shall dwell between his shoulders": there is no more beautiful part of an ox than between its shoulders.' "

Why are the shoulders of an ox its most comely part?

The answer is simple. A green cucumber is beautiful. A green lemon is not. A yellow lemon is beautiful, whereas a yellow cucumber isn't. If someone asks how this can be -- either the color green is beautiful or it isn't! Or, is yellow more or less beautiful than green? etc. -- he won't be taken seriously. When speaking about beauty, there are no clear cut rules about which colors or shapes are beautiful and which are not. What determines the beauty of a thing's appearance is the degree to which its outward color and shape fit its inner content and nature. If the former reflects the latter, the object will appear beautiful and if not, it won't.

In other words, when the outward appearance of a person, or an object, or anything else, fits, or more accurately reflects, the purpose for which it was created or made, and impresses viewers with its ability to completely fulfill its purpose, then that person or object will be considered beautiful. If something in the appearance indicates unsuitability for doing what is usually that object's assigned job, it is considered unsightly, or ugly.

The ox was created for plowing, which requires great strength. The broad shoulders of the ox indicate its strength and its suitability for doing its job. This is why Chazal said that there is no more beautiful part of the ox than its shoulders. They clearly wouldn't have said that the most beautiful part of a sheep is its shoulders. A sheep's beauty is in its wool, or its nipples, which supply humans with wool and milk.

In Pursuit of a Youthful Image

This is a fitting juncture to bemoan the distorted perception of beauty which is so common today. Apart from the exaggerated importance that is attached to beauty (even if it were genuine beauty, and it usually isn't to our great chagrin, five centimeter heels and a few kilograms of weight can play a more important role in some shidduchim than many issues of much greater importance), our basic understanding of what beauty is, is distorted nowadays.

The most important feature in the catalogue of beauty that is upheld in the street today is "the young look." Men in their seventies will dye their silvering hair grey, or arrange their few remaining wisps across their foreheads, so that it looks like they have a fringe, and will try to make their weakened muscles conspicuous, all for the sake of looking young and thus beautiful.

From Chazal's statements, it appears that exactly the opposite is desirable -- it is "the elderly look" that is truly becoming: "He (Hakodosh Boruch Hu) said to him (Avrohom Ovinu), `You are beautiful among people' (Tehillim 45:3).

"He said, `Where is my beauty? My son and I enter a city and people don't know which is the father and which is the son,' for people used to live for a century or two and they didn't age. Avrohom said, `Ribono Shel Olom, You must make some distinction between a father and his son so that the elders will be honored by the youth.'

"Hakodosh Boruch Hu said to him, "By your life, I will start with you.' He went to sleep that night and got up in the morning. When he arose, he saw that the hair on his head and of his beard had gone white. He said, before Him, `Ribono Shel Olom, you have made me an example.'

"He said, `Old age is a crown of glory' (Mishlei 16:31), `And old age is the beauty of elders' (Mishlei 20:29)." (Yalkut Shimoni Bereishis 23:105).

The hoary head of the elderly then, is actually a crown of glory that gives them a beautiful appearance. How has our scale of values done such an about turn?

The Outward Reflection of Man's True Image

According to the aforementioned we can understand why. Beauty is an indication that its bearer is suited to fulfill its purpose. Man's purpose is the acquisition of understanding. Chazal tell us (Nedorim 41), "If you have acquired understanding, you have acquired everything; if you lack understanding, what do you have?" for they expound the word, zokein, elder, as signifying, zeh konoh chochmoh, this one has acquired wisdom" (Kiddushin 32).

Years that are properly utilized, together with the vast experience that they bring, impart understanding and comprehension to their owners. This is why an elderly appearance is beautiful. Old age is a sign of a steady head and knowledge of life. Since the formula for man's creation was, "betzalmeinu kidemuseinu, in our form and in our image," (Bereishis 1:26), demus being explained by Rashi as meaning, "to understand and comprehend," it follows that an elderly appearance has more genuine "humanity" about it than a young one.

On the other hand, a person whose ideas about life come from the outlook of those "who are not called man" (Yevomos 61) and where, as in the animal world, distinction goes to the stronger one -- for physical strength is far more necessary in order to enjoy oneself and satisfy one's desires than brains are -- will esteem a young person as being far more suited to fulfilling life's "purpose" than an aged one. In order to look pleasant, they therefore try to appear youthful.

It's worthwhile repeating again and again: human beauty is not measured in the same way that a choice cut of meat is measured on the butcher's block. People who are truly "of beautiful appearance," are not necessarily those with pink cheeks and rounded facial contours, but those whose happy faces testify that "they do not look askance on what others have."

Someone who understands this properly can test himself to see how much of a ben Torah he really is. Does he feel that the latest haircut and an ultramodern suit are really good- looking even if he does not want to wear them himself? Or does he feel that this kind of "beauty" that is in fact designed by some corrupt soul in Paris is actually ugliness, arousing sickness and revulsion in him?

HaRav Yitzchok Pinchos Goldwasser is the mashgiach of Yeshivas Or Yisroel in Petach Tikvah.

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