Last night, my friends and I sat around the table in dialogue about the Torah portion. We were inspired by the Torah’s mention of Sarah’s beauty, and our discussion evolved into talk about the overrated value of physical beauty.
Intuitively, it would seem that the body’s allure would fall low on the spiritual yardstick. If our goal is to pursue awareness and sensitivity, an obsession with looking good can be quite a distraction. When we are constantly bombarded with advertising and media that emphasize the value of good looks and aesthetics, when beauty becomes a currency, it’s easy to forget that in the end it is the body that dies while the soul remains eternal. So why invest in the ephemeral?
King Solomon echoes this approach in his famous poem A Woman of Valor: “Charm is deceptive and beauty is naught; a G‑d-fearing woman is the one to be praised.”
Her face was a transparent canvas from which emanated her inner radianceAnd yet, the Torah publicizes Sarah’s beauty. After her passing, the Torah pays tribute to her (Genesis 23:1): “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Notice how her age is recorded in a fragmented and repetitive manner. The Midrash explains: when she was twenty she retained the beauty of a seven-year-old, and when she was one hundred she was as innocent from sin as when she was a twenty-year-old. In a final summation of Sarah’s life, the Torah tells us two things—that she was beautiful, and that she had a flawless character—her two great qualities juxtaposed.
The apparent implication is that Sarah was beautiful inside and out—and what’s more, that the inside and outside were interdependent. Her face was a transparent canvas from which emanated her inner radiance.
Chassidic philosophy demonstrates three ways in which the body and soul can interact:
- The soul can try and mitigate the urges of the body. Things that look good, taste good and feel good are stimulating and addictive. Most of us live life with our body in the driver’s seat. The soul just can’t compete. And so the soul tries to negotiate reasonably, and encourages moderation.
- Or, the soul can choose to reject the body and abhor anything associated with materialism. The soul-driven person would then rebel against society’s shallow and false veneers. Simplicity and ascetism become the ultimate goals of the soul.
- The third scenario is not a compromise between the first two. It is an entirely new approach, where the body and soul learn to work together. The soul neither leans towards the body nor rejects it. It does not react; it pro-acts. In a proactive position, the soul directs and channels the body’s inclination in a constructive way.
In this last approach, instead of repressing the body’s needs, the soul views them as an opportunity to serve G‑d in a whole new way. The right foods will open the mind to a deeper understanding of Torah. A skillfully decorated home will create the right ambiance for the Shabbat meal. And clothing can make a powerful statement about the dignity of the soul beneath the skin. When working as a team, the soul becomes aware of the body as a prized medium for its work here on earth. As such, the body needs to be respected and kept in good condition.
Sarah mastered this art. She is said to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful women of all timesWhen bodily pursuits become a means to an end, the body and soul can work together like a hand and glove. One’s physical appearance then expresses his or her identity as a soulful being. The panim (face) becomes an expression of the pnimiyut (inner character).
Sarah mastered this art. She is said to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful women of all times. Just as the soul does not age, Sarah’s beauty was retained even in her old age. Her beauty was that of a body and soul operating with mutual respect and harmony. And this is why the Torah’s final praise speaks of her physical beauty.
Based on a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, p. 92.