Matt was the happiest guy in the world. He had somehow found the most beautiful girl in the world, Jennie, and they were engaged, set to marry in just over a month. They had hit it off from the very first date, and Matt could not get over how beautiful Jennie was and how proud he was to have her by his side. Sure, she was funny, smart, and kind, but wow was she beautiful. He never thought that he would find someone beautiful enough for his high standards, so he was endlessly thankful that he had met Jennie.
Then, the unthinkable happened. It started with a phone call. “It’s an emergency. I’m so sorry. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. She’s in the ICU.” Matt got to the hospital as soon as he could. When he walked in, he couldn’t bear the sight. Jennie had been in a car accident. She would live, but her face was torn apart in the crash, leaving her scarred and almost unrecognizable. Matt sat next to her for a few hours, comforting her. He then went outside for a breath of fresh air, and contemplated the most difficult question he had ever faced: What should he do? She looked horrible, ugly, repulsive! On the one hand, his gut instinct was to run. On the other hand, how could he be the shallow guy who ran as soon as something happened? What would people think? They would know that he had only been in it for her looks, that as soon as those disappeared, so did he. “No,” he thought, “I have to figure this out.”
That night, Matt did some soul searching. He called, texted, and emailed every person he could think of, asking for their advice and guidance. Most simply tried to comfort him, but finally, he received an email from a rabbi he had been connected with back in his youth. “Listen to this,” the email read, “and you may just find your answer.”
Attached in the email was an audio recording on the topics of love, marriage, and beauty. With no alternative option in sight, Matt began listening. The lecture questioned the Western model of beauty and love, rejecting the notion of love at first sight. While physical beauty is important, inner beauty, spiritual beauty, is infinitely more powerful. When building a marriage relationship, the goal is to build a deep, internal connection, a soul connection, which is built through two partners constantly giving to each other, communicating and building values together, and venturing on a shared journey and mission in life.
Matt was blown away. He had never heard these ideas before, and he began questioning his relationship with Jennie. Sure, they sometimes talked about life, their values, and overall direction, but they had never built a genuine and deep internal connection. Now that he was being honest with himself, Matt realized that he had been so fixated on Jennie’s external beauty that he had never put much effort into getting to truly know her – who she was, what she wanted in life, her struggles, her virtues and flaws, even her hopes and dreams. At that very moment, Matt decided that he would spend the next few weeks trying to build this type of relationship, and after that, he would revisit his questions about their marriage.
At first, it was awkward; Matt struggled to initiate genuine conversation, to ask real questions, to be vulnerable and honest. But slowly, things began to flow more easily. Matt and Jennie began opening up to each other with increasing ease and trust. Matt was surprised by how deep and thoughtful Jennie was, by how caring and empathetic she was toward him, how much she wanted to learn about his values and dreams. While they used to spend their dates at entertaining events, requiring little conversation, they began to go on the types of dates that fostered deep connection and conversation, creating meaningful experiences. They began seeing each other with new eyes, understanding each other on levels deeper than they ever thought possible. Jennie began to shine with a new beauty – one that her physical looks had never fully captured. They started to grow together, learn together, and inspire each other. Matt decided right then and there that he would spend the rest of his life with Jennie. Her face was scarred, but she was the most beautiful person he had ever met.
Over the next few weeks, Jennie began to undergo surgeries to repair her face, until eventually her face looked just as beautiful as when she and Matt went on their first date. But at this point, Matt had a completely different understanding of beauty. Physical, external beauty is important, but inner, spiritual beauty – a beauty that shines through the external surface and transforms it – is true beauty.
This heartwarming story might be too much for the modern ear. We are all drowning in Western culture, where physical beauty takes the front seat – or the only seat – in life. But to fully understand the present-day challenge of beauty, we must understand the spiritual concept of beauty in all of its depth. To do so, let us review the spiritual concept of beauty, tracing it 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 angelic, transcendent, and luminescent. The Midrash says that he wore kosnos ohr (skin of light). When you looked at Adam, you didn’t see his body; you saw Adam himself: his neshama, his soul. 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: he was luminescent; only if you looked very closely could you just make out his physical body. His body was transparent, with the outside loyally and 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; where the physical projects something much 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 instead. 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, your soul; all they see is your external body. Now, 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 used to be incandescent and reveal; now it only hides. It is up to us to reveal what lies inside.
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 feat. We know Sarah was physically beautiful, i.e., 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 (Bereishis 12:14-15; see Rashi). 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 – that she reached the loftiest of spiritual levels (see Rashi, Bereishis 23:1).
At the end of Parashas Noach, Rashi (Bereishis 11:29) explains that Sarah was also called “Yiskah.” A name always reflects essence, so we must ponder the meaning of this name and what it reveals about Sarah Imeinu. (The Hebrew word for name (shem) shares the same root as the word for soul (neshama), because a person’s name reflects their very essence.) “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.
One of the most misunderstood ideas in Judaism is the concept of tz’niyus, especially in regards to women. Many think that tz’niyus means to hide, that the ideal is not to be seen. However, there is an infinitely deeper approach to tz’niyus. In this age, beauty has been corrupted. The term “beauty” generally refers to outer beauty, a surface beauty that distracts from and hides the inner self. Physical beauty is neither good nor bad; it is merely a vessel with the potential to be used for good or bad. While our physical body is immensely valuable, our true self is our neshama – our mind and consciousness. Our inner world, thoughts, ideas, choices, beliefs, middos, and emotions are the deepest and most genuine parts of our “self.” True beauty is when the physical serves as a vessel that expresses one’s true self, their inner essence, into the world.
The focus must always be on the inner beauty as the ikar – the essence. The purpose of tz’niyus is not to hide you, but to reveal you! The true you. Tz’niyus shifts the focus from the external trappings to the actual self, the neshama, which lies beneath the surface and illuminates the physical vessel. True beauty requires a beautiful root and core, and the physical must then be used to project that inner beauty outwards.
When the Torah discusses the prohibition against illicit relationships, these relationships are generally referred to as gilui arayos, literally translated as “revealing one’s nakedness.” What does this mean? Why does the Torah refer to a forbidden relationship in such a manner?
An ideal marriage consists of two people who endlessly break down the barriers and walls between them, creating ever deeper levels of existential and spiritual connection and oneness. Physical connection is part of a spiritual relationship, and when used correctly, it is uplifted to something transcendent. While a true marriage relationship creates a transcendent bond, an animalistic relationship consists only of a physical, surface connection, devoid of anything deeper. It has no purpose or meaning, no direction, and no transcendent element. When one commits an act of gilui arayos, they proclaim that the intimate realm is nothing more than a means for physical pleasure. In doing so, one reveals that they are merely an animal, a physical being, lacking connection to the spiritual and to that which is higher. By entering into an illicit relationship, one expresses their view that they are purely a physical being – that their body is all that they are. As a result, by revealing their body to the world, they are revealing their “nakedness,” i.e., that they are merely a piece of flesh and nothing more. They have self-identified as an animal, a physical casing that does not reflect their neshama, one who does not wish to use their body to reflect anything higher. This is the ultimate shame, which is why the Torah repeatedly refers to gilui arayos as an act of shame (see Vayikra 18:8,10).
A Journey of Ascension
There are always two levels of reality: the surface level and the deeper, spiritual level. The surface is meant to reflect the spiritual, reveal it, and emanate its truth and beauty. But often we struggle, we forget, and we get caught up in the deception that the surface is all that there is. But even when we fail and even when we fall, there is always hope and there is always a path back to our true selves. This is the message of life. To strive to see more, feel more, learn more, and become more. May we all be inspired to not only see past the surface, but to then reveal that truth through the surface; to live holistic lives of truth, spiritual beauty, and true oneness.