Parashat Lech Lecha 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Lech Lecha 5776

We live in a world of political correctness. Say the wrong thing…and you can get kicked out of just about anywhere.

Not long ago we had a staff workshop with the employment agency that we work with. There was a segment of the workshop dealing with sexual harassment in the work place. And I walked away with the following information. I can’t tell a person who works here that they look beautiful!…there are many other things I cannot say; particularly to a person of the other gender.

And, of course, we understand why…We know that language can be used to seduce or to harass. We know that power structures are such that men in power can use their power and take advantage of others, women who work with them…

And there is something else. And that is that the feminist movement over the last fifty years or so has taught us about the dangers of objectifying women…and seeing them in terms of appearance as opposed to the quality of character or work
I want to take the license of a darshan…and I want to look at something that we rarely consider in Torah studies. I want to look at the role of beauty.  And I thank Rabbi Riemer for his insights.

In some cultures beauty is worshipped. There is such a thing as a perfect nose, beautiful eyes and a perfect body. In other cultures physical beauty is not valued nearly as much. And there are cultures that see beauty differently. The ideal body in the Renaissance was not the skinny female body, but a full figured curvy woman. Large noses are beautiful in some cultures. Today implants and transplants are in order for many to fulfill some image of that which is beautiful.

There is something missing in the Torah that I must confess I never noticed before.  When Eve, who is the first woman ever created is discussed, the Torah tells us nothing about what she looked like. It tells us something about her nature, and something about her appetite, but, the Torah tells us nothing whatsoever about what she looked like.

In the next sedra, we meet Mrs. Noah, and again something is missing in the story. We learn that she was a hard worker. We learn that she helped her husband feed all the animals that were on the ark. But the Torah says nothing at all about what she looked like. Was she tall or short? Was she beautiful or was she plain looking? The Torah does not say.

This week we meet Sarah, we learn that she is a courageous woman, who is willing to pick up stakes and move with her husband to an unknown land. We learn that she is a hospitable woman, who is willing and able to feed three guests on short notice. Only later, when they are in Egypt, are we told that she was a beautiful woman, but what that means is nowhere spelled out.

Later on, we meet Rebecca, and we are told that she is very beautiful. But what did it mean to be beautiful in her time? The Torah does not say. And then, further on, we meet Rachel. The Torah describes Rachel as ‘very beautiful’, but it says nothing about what that means. We learn of that loving and devoted women, but nowhere do we learn anything at all about what they looked like.

Even Queen Esther, who was the first Jewish woman ever to win a beauty contest, is only described as very beautiful, with no specific attributes mentioned. If she had won the Miss America contest instead, I am sure that the reporters would have told us how tall she was, what she weighed, what her complexion was like, what was her dress size, and many other details. The Megillah just says that she was beautiful, and does not elaborate on what that means.

If the Torah had been written by people who lived in ancient Greece, or if the Torah had been written by people who made their living doing advertising or in Hollywood, you can be sure that they would have described the women of the Bible in great detail. They would have told us how attractive they were. They would have told us if they were thin or heavy, if they were blondes or brunettes, and if they were tall or short.

By the way, the same thing is true of the men of the Bible. The only biblical men who are describes as handsome that I can think of are Yosef, King Saul, and King David. We know nothing about whether Moses was handsome or not, or about whether Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos, or Jonah, or Nathan were good looking or not.

And so the question is: Why does the Torah not mention these things? I don’t know, but I learned two stories from Rabbi Riemer that may help us answer this question. The first story comes from Jewish folklore. The second is not a story—it is from and Israeli newspaper a few weeks ago.

The story from Jewish folklore is this: A man comes to America from the old country and he is hungry for news from the shtetl where he used to live.  And so, whenever he hears that a lantsman from his old town has arrived in America, he hurries to meet him, and to invite him for a meal.

During the course of the meal, the host plies his visitor with questions. He asks him: “Do you know my old friend, Shlomo?” and the visitor says yes, and he brings him up to date on what is doing with Shlomo.  He asks him: “Do you know my old friend, Avraham?” and the visitor says yes, and he brings him up to date on what is doing with Abraham.

And then the host says: “Do you know my old friend, Reb Chayim?”  The visitor is not sure how to answer this question, because there are two Reb Chayim’s who live in this shtetl. So he says: “Which Reb Chayim do you mean? The one who has a hunchback?”  The host says: “Yes, yes, that’s the one I mean, the one with the hunchback”.  The visitor is still not sure, because both of the Reb Chayim’s whom he knows have a hunchback. So he says: “Do you mean the one who stutters?” “Yes, yes. That’s the one I mean – the one who stutters”, says the host.  The visitor is still not quite sure, so he says: “Do you mean the Reb Chayim who has a scar on his face?”  “Yes, yes,” says the host. “That is the one I mean?”  Ah”, says the visitor: “The one who has a hunchback, and who stutters, and who has a scar on his face, I know him well. A shayner yid! He is a beautiful Jew!”

This is a Yiddish story, because only in Yiddish can a person have a hunchback, and stutter, and have a scar on his face and still be a beautiful Jew.  The point of that story is clear; that beauty in the Jewish tradition is a matter of character and not of physical appearance.  You can be gorgeous, but if you are vain, and arrogant, and cruel, you are not a beautiful person, at least not in the way that the Jews understand beauty.

The Torah appreciates beauty. Of course it does. You have only to read Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, with its marvelous celebration by the lover of his beloved’s appearance to know that. But the Torah understands that physical beauty is not the primary characteristic of a human being. The Torah understands that too much concern with physical beauty can be distracting, and therefore, when the Torah describes its heroes and its heroines, it focuses on their spiritual qualities, and on their good deeds, and not on their physical appearance.

So, I think Sara is defined as beautiful, because of her warmth, her hospitality, her kindness, her absolute devotion to family and her incredible support for her husband. Rebekkah is beautiful because of her compassion, her desire to help, her understanding the needs of all living things.

There’s a second story; let me set it in perspective.

Look at all the fashion advertisements and the images presented in our magazines, newspapers and on television. The models are all remarkably thin. We have learned that many are anorexic or bulimic, because they know that they will have no career in the fashion world if they are even a bit overweight. To be beautiful—is to be thin.

Now the story: There was a newspaper story that told of a beauty contest that was held in Beersheva. It is called the annual ‘Miss Large” contest. In order to be eligible to compete in this contest, a woman has to weigh at least 80 kilograms, which means 176 pounds.  The winner this year was Ms. Vered Fisher. Ms. Fisher is a former member of an Intelligence Unit in the Israeli army. And she weighs around two hundred and fifty pounds.

Why would an agency in Israel sponsor a beauty contest limited to large women?  I think they do it every year for a very simple reason. A woman may be large by nature, but the consequences of being large can be devastating to her life.  A woman may feel depressed and feel that she has no value simply because she is large. And so this contest was created in order to give large women a sense of self-confidence, and a sense of self-worth.

This contest sends a message to women and to men as well, that women who are large are not to be mocked and not to be demeaned. Women and men too are to be judged by what they do, and by how they live, and not just by what the scales say.

And now, let me tell you the second half of this news story. The story reported that the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law that forbids the use of under-weight models in fashion advertisements. The reason it did so is because too many young girls, who wanted a career in modeling, have ended up endangering their lives becoming anorexic or bulimic in order to impress those who hire models. Too many young girls have ended up committing suicide, because they had gained a few more pounds than are permitted for those who would be considered beautiful in the fashion industry.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no other country in the world that has a beauty contest for large women, or that has a law forbidding advertisers from using models who endanger their health in order to be chosen.

I may be wrong, but I think there may be a connection between the Torah’s reticence to describe people’s physical beauty of its heroes and the story from Jewish folklore, the beauty contest for large women, and the law protecting models that I have told you about today.

Perhaps what the Torah is teaching us is best expressed in the last lines of the Eshet Hayil, that we should say to our wives every Shabbat: “Sheker hachen, vihevel hayofi, isha yirat Hashem hi tithalal”  Which means:  Charm is deceitful—for it does not last and physical beauty vain is brief. A woman who reveres the Lord is the one who is to be praised.

But it isn’t just true about women…It’s true about men. So where is beauty found? It’s found in the human soul personality.  It’s found in kindness, beauty is found in generosity, beauty is found in patience.

Abraham was chosen to be called by God…first! I want to tell you. I think it was because he was beautiful. And what was beautiful about him…

He was generous of spirit. He was knd. He cared deeply about people.

He was courageous; he was willing to set forth on a new journey because of his beliefs.

We need beautiful people and we need to know what that is. We experience it every time we are with people who are kind and people who love.

And so…I say to the people who work with me…whenever I say you are so kind and you are thoughtful and considerate and patient…I am saying…You are so beautiful.

May we all aspire to the beauty which comes with kindness.

Shabbat Shalom