In a world where beauty is often misunderstood, it’s important to understand the deep spiritual nature and purpose of this powerful and fundamental concept. To do so, let us trace the spiritual concept of beauty back to the creation of man, before Adam HaRishon’s sin.
Before Adam sinned, he looked nothing like you or I do today. When we look at one another, all we see is flesh and bone, but if you looked at Adam before he sinned, his appearance was luminescent. The Midrash says that he wore kosnos ohr (skin of light). When you looked at Adam, you didn’t see his body but saw Adam himself, i.e., his neshama. When you look at a light bulb, all you see is radiant luminescence; only if you look closely can you make out the surface of the bulb. The same was true regarding Adam; only if you looked very closely could you perceive his physical body, which was transparent – the outside fully reflecting his inner self.
This is true beauty, where the inner and outer melt into a oneness, where the physical perfectly reflects the inner spirituality and projects something deeper than itself. Beauty is the harmony and synthesis of different components, resulting in something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
When Adam sinned, however, the world fell, and Adam’s body fell as well. The physical no longer revealed the spiritual; it now hid it. Now, when we look at each other, we don’t see our true selves; all we see is a physical body. What was once light is now darkness. People can’t see your inner world, your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions, or your soul; all they see is your external body. In order to reveal yourself to other people, you must actively use the physical to reveal the spiritual. Only through your words, actions, facial expressions, and body language can people gain a glimpse into who you truly are. The body that was once incandescent and translucent now only hides. It is up to us to reveal what lies within.
After the sin of Adam HaRishon, genuine beauty became elusive, found only in a select few individuals. Sarah Imeinu was one of the few who achieved this lofty level. We know that Sarah was physically beautiful and that her beauty was not just of an ethereal, spiritual nature. When Sarah and Avraham descended to Mitzrayim, the Mitzrim, and even Pharaoh himself, desired her (Rashi, Bereishis 23:1). The Egyptians were steeped in immorality, interested only in beauty that ran skin deep. However, we know that Sarah Imeinu was immensely spiritual as well and that she reached the loftiest of spiritual levels (Rashi, Bereishis 23:1).
At the end of the Torah portion of Noach, Rashi explains that one of Sarah’s other names was Yiskah (Bereishis 11:29). A name always reflects essence, so we must ponder the meaning of this name and what it reveals about Sarah Imeinu. Yiskah means transparent, and Sarah’s true beauty lay in her transparency. Her inner beauty completely permeated and was loyally reflected through her physical body. Genuine beauty is embodied in transparency, where the physical body reflects the inner, spiritual beauty, something infinitely greater than anything external. True beauty is oneness, where the physical and spiritual melt into a oneness; where the physical doesn’t hide the inner self but reveals it.
This is why the root of the word yiskah is also the root of the word schach, the roof of the sukkah. According to halacha, the schach is the most important (ikar) part of the sukkah, which is why schach shares the same root as “sukkah.” What is the connection between transparency and schach? The answer lies in one of the deepest themes of Sukkos. Sukkos is about seeing past the illusion of independent self-security, recognizing that Hashem is our true source of protection. This is why we leave our sturdy homes and enter a diras arai, a temporary dwelling place. We show that our faith and trust lie in Hashem, not our “safe” homes. While on the surface, our security and safety seem to come from our own efforts and hishtadlus, when we look past the surface, we recognize that everything comes from Hashem. This is why the schach is the primary (ikar) part of the sukkah; it trains us to see past the surface. The schach must be transparent, allowing us to see the stars at night. It must also be loose enough to allow some sunlight and rain to enter the sukkah. Only a transparent surface allows us to truly see what lies beyond it.
From Light to Skin
As mentioned above, the Midrash explains that originally Adam wore kosnos ohr (spelled with an aleph) – garments of light (Torah Temimah, Bereishis 3:21). After he sinned, Hashem clothed him in kosnos ohr (spelled with an ayin) – garments of skin (Bereishis 3:21). When spelled with an aleph, ohr is light; when spelled with an ayin, ohr is a hide, the skin of an animal. What is the deeper meaning behind this?
Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains the meaning behind the descriptions of Adam’s clothing according to this idea. Originally, Adam’s body was transparent, emanating the light of his soul. Light reveals, and his original skin revealed his true, inner self. Once he sinned, however, his body no longer revealed the spiritual, but only its physical surface. The word ohr, when spelled with an ayin, means animal hide. This skin, like its English translation, hides the soul, the inner self.
The letter aleph is the first letter of the aleph-beis. It is the letter of oneness, representing transcendence, spirituality, and Hashem, our ultimate Source and root. The letter ayin represents the physical, limited expression of the aleph. This is why the word “aleph” means to elevate or lift to a higher spiritual dimension, while ayin means eye. The eye naturally sees only the physical; however, it has the potential to see past the physical surface of reality and to source itself back to the original light of the aleph. That is why the word ayin is also connected to the word “maayan” (a wellspring). A wellspring has a limiting surface. Through effort, though, one can peer beneath that surface, revealing something endlessly deep behind it. By delving into the depths of the wellspring, one can draw forth water – the source of life (see Bereishis 26:19). Ayin therefore reflects the concept of reaching that which is hidden and transcendent.
However, the ayin also has the potential to corrupt, causing us to see nothing more than the physical surface without sourcing our physical sight back to any higher source. This is why the Hebrew word iver, spelled the same way as the word ohr, means “blind.” One who sees only the physical surface is blind to the truth; one who sees only the surface does not see at all. This is the unique challenge of sight. We can use it to see the physical as an expression of the spiritual, or we can become trapped by the lure of the surface, ignoring its higher root. In our next article, we will develop this idea further and understand the deeper spiritual purpose of clothing.