"Beautiful Inside and Out"
"If eyes were made for seeing,
then Beauty is its own excuse for being."
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Poems, The Rhodora)
The renowned 19th century American poet and essayist herein expresses one of the main philosophic tenets of the Western World: "Beauty is its own excuse for being." Indeed, Western Civilization appears to be built on the adoration of Beauty. From fair Helen of Ancient Troy - dubbed by 16th century British bard, Christopher Marlowe, "the face that launched a thousand ships," - down through the meanderings of time until today's Miss Universe Beauty Pageant, beauty has played a central role on the stage of history.
Beauty, however, is not limited to the appearance of women. Its significance may be recognized as well in a Western World that has given primacy throughout the ages to music, literature, drama, painting, and the other "fine arts." Upon close examination, much of today's world seems to be focused on "aesthetics," the celebration of the various faces of Beauty.
What is the true purpose of Beauty? Does the Torah also give it primacy?
Shlomo Hamelech, the "wisest of men," warns us: "False is grace, and vain is beauty, the woman who fears the Lord shall be praised" (Proverbs 31:30). The Torah seems to take the opposite stance; not only is Beauty not a prominent factor, it is even dangerous in that it is "false." It would seem that its importance is to be denigrated.
Yet, the Gaon of Vilna takes us deeper when he brings Shlomo Hamelech's statement in juxtaposition to the Torah's description of the Matriarchs. Why, asks the Gaon, should the Torah make note of the beauty of the Matriarchs, calling Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel "beautiful in form, and beautiful in appearance," if this beauty is "vain" and "false?" He answers that there are different types of physical beauty. There is physical beauty that is only "skin deep," only physical with no spiritual concomitant. There also exists physical beauty which is at base spiritual, an emanation of an inner beauty, causing observers of this individual to remark: "What a perfect Creation, beautiful inside and out." This, concludes the Gaon, was the startling beauty of the Matriarchs, a beauty that emanated from the inside out.
How radically different than a woman who has only physical beauty, whom Shlomo Hamelech compares to a "gold ring in the nose of a sow." What is this metaphor meant to illustrate? Gold symbolizes honor and importance; it adorns thrones, scepters, and crowns. A nose ring which was a symbol of beauty, especially one made of gold, is most incongruous in the snout of the swine, a disgusting beast that uses its snout to dig in revolting places. So is the physical beauty of a woman who does not aspire to the pursuit of Truth a falsification, an enticing peel devoid of its nourishing fruit.
The nation of Israel descends from Shem, the youngest son of Noach; ancient Greece was descended from Yefet, Noach's oldest son. The Torah traces the roots of their national character to a single incident: Upon hearing from their brother Cham that their father lay intoxicated and exposed in his tent, they remedied the embarrassing situation by covering him. "And Shem and Yefet took a garment, and put it upon both of their shoulders, and went backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness" (Bereishet 9:23). Rashi tells us the consequences of this action for the descendants of the three sons: Cham who disgraced his father is cursed that his descendants will be led into slavery naked and barefoot; Yefet who assisted his brother in covering his father's disgrace merits honorable burial for his descendants, and Shem, who initiated the action, merits tzitzit for his descendants.
While we can understand the consequences of Cham's action, the distinction between that of Shem and Yefet is more subtle, for, did they not both together perform the same dignified deed?
In truth, the actions of Shem and Yefet were vastly different. Shem who initiated the meritorious deed was motivated by an internal stimulus, seeing beyond the physical disgrace to the degradation of the "image of G-d," the entire spiritual domain. His reward is tzitzit, a physical tool that enables him to see beyond the physical world to the spiritual world above. Yefet, who follows Shem's lead, concurring that human disgrace must be removed, is responding merely to the external stimulus. He is rewarded with the external trappings of human dignity - honorable burial.
"G-d has granted Beauty to Yefet, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem" (Bereishet 9:27). The Beauty granted Yefet, and his progeny, the nation of Greece, is external; the Beauty of the fine arts, the worship of the physically beautiful - Beauty which is "its own excuse for being." Yet, this Beauty is intended to dwell in the tents of Shem and those of the nation of Israel, to assist in the glorification of True Beauty - the inner beauty of the soul and spirituality. As history so clearly demonstrates, from the ancient political and cultural struggles between Classical Greece and Israel, down through the ages until that of the contemporary Jew surrounded by Western Civilization, True Beauty must either emanate from within or at least assist and glorify this inner Beauty - the Eternal Truth of Torah!