She’s A Beauty
This Shabbat we begin the holiday of Sukkot. A few years back Rabbi Kalman Bauman, the principal of the excellent elementary school, Toras Emes, once pointed out an interesting oddity about the holiday in his weekly message sent home with the kids. He noted that the Torah refers to the Etrog – the citrus fruit that we wave along with the Lulav on Sukkot – is called Pri Etz Hadar which means “a beautiful fruit”. He wrote, “It seems odd that a bumpy, somewhat misshapen fruit would be considered beautiful. A beautiful fruit in my world view would more likely be a luscious looking red apple, a smoothly rounded multicolored peach or a perfect bell-shaped pear.”
Whatever fruit might be your favourite – I personally love the look and taste of a bowl of burgundy red cherries or the striking shiny deep orange segments of a mango – it seems, like many things, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is therefore somewhat audacious of the Torah to claim any one particular fruit as being the definitive and most beautiful one.
But perhaps the Torah is teaching us a lesson about what real beauty is all about and the secret to finding it. And that secret is related to a unique aspect of the Etrog. There is one exceptional feature to an Etrog not found in most, and dare I say, any other fruit. And that is, it does not rot. You can keep it around for as long as you wish and unlike other fruits it won’t get moldy and gross.
This is not to say it will remain edible forever. No, what will happen is that it will progressively shrink and harden until it resembles a stone. In fact, some stick clove spikes into an Etrog, spacing them apart to account for the shrinkage, and use them as their sweet-smelling spice for the Havdala ceremony.
The Etrog’s refusal to rot and that fact that the Torah defines it as beautiful tells us something about authentic beauty. That beauty is to be found in something that is not temporary and withers away but in something more substantial and eternal. Indeed, what we may call beautiful in our society is often fleeting and gone. What is fashionable today looks silly and dated a few years later. Today’s model is over the hill in a matter of years before a new crop come along and surpass her. Her skin is not as taut around her high cheekbones, she puts on a few pounds, especially if she has had a kid or two, and before she knows it, she is off the cover of Vogue and relegated to TMZ or worse, National Enquirer.
Something truly beautiful is that which reflects God. And inasmuch as God is Infinite and Eternal, so too true beauty is Infinite and Eternal. Real beauty contains within it the qualities that are of the eternal soul. Goodness, Truth, Justice and Kindness – all Godly and spiritual traits.
We each have our personal preferences for external beauty and you might like red, pale and ruddy while I prefer dark and olive-skinned, but when it comes to absolute beauty, then there is only one true standard and that is the spiritual beauty that is a reflection of God.
There is a story in the Talmud of the sage, Shimon bar Yochai who had to stay hidden in a cave for twelve plus years while on the lam from the Roman government who wanted him dead. During that entire time his only activities that he and his son, who accompanied him, were engaged in were Torah study and prayer. As a result of his complete devotion to Godly things it was during those years that he developed into the great sage who would author the holy Zohar, the definitive work on Mysticism.
The Talmud relates that when he finally emerged from the cave, his father-in-law, Pinchas ben Yair was once massaging him since his skin had become rough and broken from those many years in the cave. His father-in-law was so pained to see him in such a terrible physical state that he wept and as he did, his tears fell into the crevices of the damaged skin of Shimon bar Yochai causing Reb Shimon to cry out in pain. Pinchas ben Yair exclaimed, “Woe is me for seeing you like this!” But R’ Shimon bar Yochai emphatically replied, “Fortunate are you to see me like this!” As the Talmud then relates, before Shimon bar Yochai went into the cave, his father-in-law was the superior scholar, but by the time he left the roles were reversed and now he had greatly surpassed him.
This reframe would be akin to someone seeing all the calluses on the hands and feet of Roger Federer and thinking how terrible they look. Roger could answer, “Terrible? You see this callus – that is Wimbledon, and this one is the US Open and this one is the Australian Open – and each layer of tough skin is another year of championships from my illustrious career!” To Roger Federer, those calluses are a thing of beauty and just as gorgeous as the trophies on his shelf. To Shimon bar Yochai, every crack and hard patch of his skin represented another layer of knowledge of God’s Torah and closeness to Him and was a badge of honour.
When it comes to beauty, it is not only in the eye of the beholder, but more importantly in what we choose to see in another. So let’s take a lesson from the bumpy, nerdy-looking Etrog and look a little deeper to see what real beauty is all about and where it is to be found. And when we meet someone who doesn’t fit our superficial definition of beauty, look a little closer. Those bumps and wrinkles are filled with history, wisdom, experience and kindness. If you make the effort to look past the superficial first layer and impression of another and to behold their spirit and soul, you may very well find yourself staring at the image of God. And there is nothing more beautiful than that.
You are so beautiful…to me
Can’t you see?
You’re everything I hoped for
You’re everything I need
You are so beautiful…to me