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Modesty and Mystery

Modesty and Mystery

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The Meaning of Modesty

Our sages teach:1

The splendor of Torah is wisdom;
the splendor of wisdom is humility;
the splendor of humility is awe;
the splendor of awe is [a] mitzvah;
the splendor of [a] mitzvah is [its] modesty.

The Biblical source of the concept that modesty is the apex of Divine service is the well-known verse from the prophet Micah:2

It has been told you, O man, what is good,
and what G‑d asks of you:
Only that you do justice, love kindness,
and walk modestly with your G‑d.

Commenting on this verse, our sages say: “Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were given through Moses…. Micah came and established them on [i.e., encapsulated them into] three.”3

Nonetheless, inasmuch as man and woman are of opposite natures, their true union can only occur through paradox

The root of the word mitzvah (צוה) means “attachment” or “connection.”4 There are two general categories of mitzvot: one’s duties to G‑d, and one’s duties to one’s fellow man. A mitzvah between man and G‑d connects the soul to G‑d; a mitzvah between man and man connects one’s soul to the soul of his fellow.5

The most intense form of connection is, of course, that of husband and wife. For this reason, our sages refer to marital relations as the greatest of mitzvot.6 Thus, the above statement—“the splendor of a mitzvah is its modesty”—implies, in particular, that the beauty of marital relations lies in their modesty. The modesty that characterizes a couple’s marital relations creates an even stronger bond (mitzvah) between them than does their physical contact. Indeed, modesty is what lends true beauty and splendor to their physical union, and creates the true, spiritual union between them.

It may seem paradoxical that modesty can foster a deeper identification than can marital relations alone. Nonetheless, inasmuch as man and woman are of opposite natures, their true union can only occur through paradox.7 Through the care they take to preserve modesty even in their most intimate and self-exposing It is customary to think that modesty is expressed by the way one dresses...the ultimate expression of modesty, however, is in the way one thinks! moments, each spouse connects to the other’s deepest and most private realms of being and becomes able to perceive the most sublime beauty of the other’s soul.

It is customary to think that modesty is expressed by the way one dresses. Although this is true, it is not the whole picture. As we have pointed out, the three modes of expression—thought, speech, and action—are called the “garments” of the soul. Thus, modesty is also expressed by the way one “dresses” himself in these, his spiritual garments.8 One’s modesty is reflected in the way one moves9 and talks; the ultimate expression of modesty, however, is in the way one thinks!

To understand this, let us note that the difference between modesty (צְנִיעוּת, tzeniut) and humility (עֲנָוָה, anavah)10 is that whereas a humble person nullifies his ego, a modest one transcends it.

There are four basic stages in the nullification of the ego: the sense of lowliness, the sense of subservience to a superior, unpretentiousness, and selflessness.11 The common denominator of all of these, however, is that one is focused on oneself and one’s ego, even if only in order to nullify it.12

Modesty of thought, on the other hand, is simply not thinking about oneself.13 This is what is meant by transcending one’s ego.

An End to Hiding

Had Eve merited, she would have epitomized the attribute of modesty. But she naïvely concluded that the fact that G‑d had created her and her husband naked meant there was nothing wrong with open nakedness. Forgetting that G‑d placed them in the garden to perfect reality, she14 fell into the ideological trap of simply aspiring to be one with G‑d’s creation as it was.15 She understood G‑d’s directive to “cling and become one flesh” superfically; therefore, although she sought to unite with her husband, she was oblivious to the need for modesty as an acknowledgment of their essential, unknowable selves, their transcendent unity. She and Adam therefore cohabited in the open;16 they were aware of being observed, but felt there was nothing wrong with this.

Her fall continued with her immodest conversation with the snake, who then pushed her to touch the tree of knowledge—an even more immodest state (that of motion)—until she finally ate the forbidden fruit. By the power of her free will, she could have stopped the fall at any time by asking G‑d, the omnipotent One, to “catch” her in midair and not let her “crash.”17

The beginning of the rectification of the primordial sin was when G‑d clothed Adam and Eve, indicating that they must learn modesty. Immediately upon eating the forbidden fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves and made themselves sashes.”18 After pronouncing their punishment, G‑d Himself clothed them: “And G‑d made for Adam and his wife tunics of skin and clothed them.”19

When G‑d first appeared to Moses, He “hid” Himself in the burning bush. Moses was thus presented with the opportunity to gaze at the Divine Presence, alluringly veiled in a cloak of modesty. He responded by hiding his own face, in order not to behold the Divine Presence.20 According to one opinion, this was proper; he did not make the same mistake as Eve, and knew that to look immodestly at the Divine face would be a denial of the higher knowledge expressed by modesty.

According to another opinion, however, G‑d would have preferred that Moses look at Him.21 As the redemption was beginning, He was hinting to him that the primordial sin was now in the process of being rectified, and that it was time to put aside external modesty. He wanted him to put an end to the hiding.

In the future, we are taught, “your Teacher will cloak Himself no more, for your eyes shall behold your Teacher.”22 The paradox of the future is that although modesty will remain, it will reveal as well as conceal.

Moses did not understand this hint until after the sin of the golden calf, when he prayed: “Please show me Your glory.”23 But by then it was too late; by sinning, the Jewish people had fallen spiritually and were no longer capable of receiving a direct revelation of G‑d.24 G‑d replied: “You cannot behold My face, for no one [now] can behold My face and live.”25 In the words of our sages: “When I wanted, you did not want; now that you want, I do not want.”26 Instead, G‑d hid His “face,” and revealed only His “back” to Moses. This reflects the paradox of simultaneous revelation and concealment, the secret of modesty.

One’s “back” is the part of oneself he cannot see. It therefore alludes to one’s super-conscious self, or the source of one’s spouse. Of course, G‑d does not have a super-conscious, but He does have a super-rational desire for His “spouse,” the Jewish people; this is His “back.”

By telling Moses “you will see My back,” G‑d was telling him: “you must relate to My innermost desire, which is you. From this, you will understand that to see My face, you must look at your back—your innermost super-conscious desire. There, you will see Me.”

Modesty and Romance

When one is not conscious of oneself, he is also not conscious of his merits or sins.27 His usually “exposed” shortcomings and failings are “covered” by the cloak of his modesty. And inasmuch as his sense of self has dissolved into G‑d’s, he sees everyone else—particularly those closest to him—as part of the same collective self. When one is not conscious of oneself, he is also not conscious of his merits or sins Thus, by “covering” himself, he “covers” and becomes oblivious to the sins of others, as well.28

At the same time, he becomes truly altruistic. When one’s own self occupies no place in one’s consciousness, only the “other” exists. One’s sole delight then comes from ensuring the other’s pleasure. Each partner of a truly united couple will thus seek the gratification and fulfillment of the other in all areas of marital life.29

Paradoxically, however, it is precisely at this point of total self-abnegation that one’s true self shines through. What we normally identify as our “self,” as “I,” is merely the face of one’s unrectified animal soul. Once all the superficial aspects of selfhood have been neutralized, the true Divine self—one’s soul-essence—can be revealed.

The Divine self cannot, of course, express itself in the same way that its lower counterpart does, inasmuch as it lacks the consciousness of existing as anything other than a part of G‑d.30 It therefore remains in the paradoxical position of representing both a negation of man’s ability to be known, and an affirmation of the only true “self” that can be known. In this state, it forever retains its essential purity.

Herein lies the lesson the Torah teaches us with regard to modest conduct—especially as it concerns husband and wife, both within and without the context of marital relations.31 If one assumes that he can “know” his spouse, then their relationship automatically becomes reduced to superficial and mundane familiarity.32 But if one realizes that as much as he knows his spouse, there always remain aspects of her that he can never touch, that there are facets and depths of her soul that he has yet to plumb, their relationship stays eternally fresh and new. The sense of wonder in their marriage is never exhausted.

Although, as we have discussed, there is a rational side to marriage, it is its super-rational aspect that affords it infinite depth. Only the recognition that marriage is a miracle wrought by G‑d for His own inscrutable reasons can imbue a marital relationship with this profound sense of mystery.

The secular notion of romance is the tension preceding and leading to the consummation of love. Once this tension is resolved, boredom sets in, and even hostility may follow33; artificial means must therefore be found to reinstate the tension and renew the challenge. As we mentioned above, a Jewish marriage is spared this need by the laws of Familiy Purity. The romantic dynamic of tension and fulfillment is built into these observances, which constantly refresh the couple’s romantic love on the physical plane. On the metaphysical plane, however, the intensity of romance is preserved by the couple’s modesty. By virtue of their mutual acknowledgement of their unknowable essences, they remain forever virgin to one another. No matter how well they know each other, there is always a dimension to the other’s soul that the one has yet to touch; on this level, every shared encounter is their first.34

Modesty Attracts

When one of the angels who visited Abraham asked him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” he responded: “Behold, she is in the tent.”35 Our sages teach us that the angel’s question was intended to call Abraham’s attention to Sarah’s modesty36 and thereby to arouse his attraction toward her.

No matter how well they know each other, there is always a dimension to the other’s soul that the one has yet to touch; on this level, every shared encounter is their first. In general, mystery attracts. Something is kept secret and guarded because it is deemed too unique for common knowledge or benefit; it is reserved for the benefit of the select and privileged. The secrecy both conveys the intrinsic worth of what is being hidden and challenges and beckons the outsider to prove himself worthy of being privy to it. This is why a concealing manner and modest dress is so attractive and arousing. This is also why people can dupe others into thinking something is worthwhile simply by surrounding it with an artificial aura of secrecy. The reverse also applies: if something possesses intrinsic worth, treating it with respect and awe generates a sensitivity to this aspect of it.

In marriage, a delicate balance must be struck between the frankness a couple displays as each other’s most trusted friends, and the mystery they must preserve through the modesty surrounding even their most intimate contact. Even when openness is called for, there must always be an underlying awareness of each other’s essential mystery. This is afforded by the couple’s growing sensitivity to “the unknowing and unknowable” side of their souls. To the extent that they internalize the inherent paradox of their super-conscious essence, they can be both frank and modest, knowing and not knowing, knowable and not knowable.37

This is the essence of the mystery of marriage.



This article is a compilation of sections from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s book, The Mystery of Marriage (Chapter 15, 371-409)

Footnotes
1.
Derech Eretz Zuta 5.
2.
6:8.
3.
Makot 24a.
4.
Likutei Torah 2:45c; Likutei Sichot, vol. 7, p. 30 ff. and sources cited in footnote 7 there.
5.
The numerical value of the phrases for these two categories of mitzvot (בין אדם למקום בין אדם לחברו) equals 676 = 262. 26 is the value of G‑d’s essential Name Havayah. Thus, the consummate revelation of G‑d (the significance of squaring the value of His Name) depends on both levels of attachment. All the mitzvot are referred to as the mitzvot of Havayah (see Sod Hashem Lireiav, ch. 28).
The four letters of the word mitzvah (מצוה) itself correspond to the four letters of the Name Havayah: The first two letters of Havayah—י-ה—transform in the “reflective” alphabetic transformation system of atbash to מצ, the first two letters of מצוה. The second two letters of both Havayah and mitzvah are identical: וה. Thus, the first two letters of mitzvah conceal their corresponding letters of the Name Havayah, while the second two letters of mitzvah reveal their corresponding letters. This accords with the general principle in Kabbalah that the first two letters of the Name Havayah are intended to be concealed, whereas the last two are revealed. This principle is alluded to in the verse: “The concealed matters are G‑d’s, and the revealed matters are ours and our childrens’...” (Deuteronomy 29:28). The term “concealed matters” refers to the kavanot of the mitzvot; “revealed matters” refers to the performance of the mitzvot.
The principle of inter-inclusion applies to the categories of “between man and G‑d” and “between man and fellow.” We perform mitzvot between man and G‑d “in the name of all Israel,” and mitzvot between man and fellow with the intention to please G‑d, our Father in heaven, by showing Him that His children behave lovingly to one another. This is an additional way of understanding the verse “the wise of heart will take mitzvot” (see above, p. 322).
6.
In the context of procreation. (Tosefot on Shabbat 4a, s.v. Vechi; and on Gitin 41b, s.v. Lo Tohu).
7.
Significantly, the Hebrew verb for marriage, נישואין, has the same root as the verb used to express “paradox”—נשיאת הפכים (literally, “the carrying of opposites”). For this reason, marriage—נישואין—is referred to as a “covenant” (ברית), implying as well the union of opposites. See Pelach HaRimon, Shemot 296a.
8.
Physical and spiritual garments are closely related: the way one dresses affects the way one moves, talks, and even thinks.
9.
The word הצנע (“modestly,” from Micah 6:8) can be read as a notrikun for הצ[דיק] נע, “[the way] the tzadik moves.”
10.
In the five-rung ladder of ascent in the levels of splendor, humility (anavah) is reached by the second ascent—“the splendor of wisdom is humility,” whereas modesty culminates all five levels—“the splendor of [a] mitzvah is [its] modesty.
11.
See at length Lev LaDa’at, p. 17 ff. The four levels of humility correspond to the four letters of G‑d’s Name Havayah and to the four worlds, as follows:

י

Atzilut

בטול

bitul

selflessness

ה

Beriah

ענוה

anavah

unpretentiousness

ו

Yetzirah

הכנעה

hachna’ah

subservience

ה

Asiyah

שפלות

shiflut

lowliness

 

12.
There is a higher level of bitul, at which one is “existentially nullified” (בטול במציאות) altogether, and is so consumed within Divinity that he has no conscious awareness of himself as an entity distinct from his Divine source. At this stage, it is no longer necessary to actively nullify one’s ego; this has already been accomplished. This level is the province of tzadikim, whose process of self-refinement is essentially behind them and who have reached a steady-state type of Divine service. Thus, in the Tanya (ch. 15), the beinoni is referred to as “one who is actively engaged in the service of G‑d” (עובד אלהי-ם) in contrast to the tzadik, who is referred to as “the servant of G‑d” (עבד אלהי-ם). We are here discussing the service of the beinoni, and therefore the bitul referred to is the type that must be actively imposed.
As will be seen, however, a beinoni can reach the level of reisha d’lo ityada. The paradox of this level is that while one has not yet achieved absolute self-annihilation, he is so focused on Divinity that it appears as if he has. In the terminology of Kabbalah, a tzadik possesses the consciousness of Atzilut, or absolute bitul, while the beinoni possess the consciousness of Beriah, or possible existence (אפשריות המציאות). The beinoni could “be there,” but is not because he is focused on what is above him, whereas the tzadik is “not there” a priori. In the terminology of Kabbalah, a tzadik experiences the aspect of reisha d’lo ityada that reflects the essence of bitul (שם מ"ה), while the beinoni experiences the aspect that reflects a state of “existent” bitul (שם ב"ן).
13.
Actually, not thinking about oneself is the highest but not the only form of modesty of thought. Just as modest speech means taking care not to overtly refer to oneself (whether in pride or in scorn), so does modest thought mean not exaggerating one’s own self-image. The “upper limit” of this level is the state of consciousness wherein one does not think of oneself at all.
Even the lower form of modesty, however, is a transcending rather than a nullification of the ego. By cultivating modesty, one rises above the spiritual conflict involved in the process of actively refining his lower self, and expresses instead the earnest, sincere connection to G‑d termed temimut (תמימות). By virtue of this simple devotion, one’s entire array of soul powers becomes oriented toward Divinity (see BeSha’ah SheHikdimu 5672, pp. 155-8; Torat Shalom, p. 180).
In this context, temimut may be considered an encompassing soul-power (כח מקיף). As such, it possesses both characteristics of modesty: it transcends (surrounds) and covers (encompasses) that which is below and within it.
See also BeSha’ah SheHikdimu, p. 236-8, where hod—which, as we have noted (page 157, footnote 59), is associated with temimut—is associated with the inner dimension of keter.
As we shall explain, all levels of modesty are levels of “clothing” (i.e., levels of “rectification”; see above, p. 47, footnote 1). We may identify four levels of modest “clothing” in correspondence with the four levels of humility enumerated above. Each level of modesty “garbs”/rectifies the corresponding level of humility, as follows:

world

level of humility

level of modesty

Atzilut

bitul

selflessness

not thinking of oneself

Beriah

anavah

unpretentiousness

modest thought

Yetzirah

hachna’ah

subservience

modest speech

Asiyah

shiflut

lowliness

modest motion



Thus, we see that the relationship between humility and modesty is one of “body” to “clothing,” or in the more abstract terms of Kabbalah, of “lights” to “vessels.” It is axiomatic in Kabbalah that the origin of the vessels is higher than the origin of the lights. We can therefore understand why modesty (and not humility) is regarded as being rooted in the unknowable head of keter.
14.
Although both Adam and Eve were guilty of this, the rectification of reality by keeping it from overstepping its bounds is primarily a female function (Zohar 1:48b, 2:92a: “It is written, ‘Remember the Sabbath day’ [Exodus 20:8] and ‘Guard the Sabbath day’ [Deuteronomy 5:12]. ’Remember’ is for the male; ‘guard’ is for the female”).
15.
Thus, the sin of Adam and Eve was that they wanted to go directly from submission (recognizing the dependency of creation on G‑d) to sweetening (consummating the unity of all creation together) without first undergoing the intermediate stage of separation (distinguishing between proper and improper behavior). As mentioned above (p. 396, footnote 80), this is the fundamental misconstruction of non-Jewish spirituality.
16.
Cohabiting while naked, an expression of the couple’s true union, is not only not frowned upon but in fact required by Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 76:13). However, the couple must be covered by a sheet or blanket, and, of course, may not cohabit in public. This dual behavior of complete immodesty (being naked) and modesty (being covered and in private) expresses the paradox of the union at the level of “unknowing and unknowable.”
17.
As it is said: “Even when he falls he shall not be let go [to crash to the ground], for G‑d supports his hand” (Psalms 37:24).
19.
Ibid., 3:21. Above (p. 47, footnote 1), we noted that the Aramaic word for “vessel” (מנא) is also used to mean “clothing,” and (p. 113, footnote 10) that this root is related to the word for “faith” (אמונה).

After their sin, Adam and Eve were somewhat aware that their lack of modesty had caused their downfall, as indicated by the fact that they covered themselves partially. It remained for G‑d, however, to teach them the complete meaning of modesty, as reflected in being fully clothed.
20.
Exodus 3:6. Note the juxtaposition of “appearing” and “hiding.”
21.
Berachot 7a.
22.
Isaiah 30:20. Before the creation of the world, G‑d’s finite power was not revealed; it was hidden within His infinite power. By creating the world, G‑d hid His infinite power within His finite power. In the future, the infinite will be revealed within the finite. The tzimtzum will remain, but will reveal instead of conceal. This is analogous to the idea, mentioned above (p. 282), that in the future the voice of the bride will be heard together with the voice of the groom.
24.
According to the opinion that it was proper for Moses to hide his face at the burning bush, in this merit his face later shone (Exodus 34:28-35). “Come and see how great is the power of sin! For before they sinned, ‘the sight of the glory of G‑d was like a devouring fire atop the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel’ [ibid. 24:17], yet they were not afraid and did not tremble. But after they made the golden calf, they recoiled and trembled even at the sight of the rays of glory shining from Moses’ face!” (Sifrei to Numbers 5:3). Just as he was ashamed to look at G‑d’s face, so were the people ashamed to look at his face.

“And Moses did not know that his face shone...and he put a veil over his face.” Moses here was at the level of reisha d’lo ityada, the essential source of modesty; he was not aware of the level he had achieved. Putting the veil on (after he saw the people recoil and thus became aware that his face was shining) was an act of modesty.
25.
Ibid. 33:19.
26.
Berachot, loc. cit.
27.
Cf. Likutei Sichot, vol. 16, p. 271 ff.
28.
As we have explained, the moon is a symbol for the Jewish people. We mark the monthly renewal of the moon with special prayers and celebrations. On Rosh HaShanah, however, the prayers and celebrations of the new year eclipse those of the new moon, and virtually almost no mention of it is made in the liturgy. Our sages take this “hiding” of the moon on Rosh Hashanah to allude to the way in which G‑d covers over all our sins on this day, thereby wiping them away forever (see Midrash Tehilim 81:5; beginning of Sefer Hama’amarim 5670).
29.
See Mivchar HaPeninim, Sha’ar HaTzeniut.
30.
See above, note 31.
31.
See Shabbat 53b.
32.
Similarly, to presume to know G‑d would be to belittle Him and reduce Him to the realm of the mundane.

When “Adam knew his wife, Eve,” he was relating to her on all levels save that of reisha d’lo ityada, since they lacked the proper sense of modesty, as will be discussed. In other words, He knew her, but did not succeed in achieving the paradox of simultaneously not knowing her.
33.
The classic example of this is Amnon and Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-15; Avot 5:16).
34.
Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li, p. 21. This spiraling experience of mutual virginity may be seen to be alluded to in the verse: “Then shall the virgin rejoice in her dance” (Jeremiah 31:12); the word for “dance” (מחול) is related to the word for “ring” (חוליה). See Keter Shem Tov, addendum 40; above, p. 296; Sefer HaSichot 5703, p. 180, on the verse: “The Torah of G‑d is unblemished, restoring the soul” (Psalms 19:8).
36.
Rashi ad loc. From this we see that it is good to be aware of one’s wife’s modesty.

Abraham was not initially so conscious of modesty, since the angel had to point Sarah’s modesty out to him. In order to father Isaac, the embodiment of modesty, Abraham had to first attain modesty-consciousness (see following footnote).
37.
Specifically, not-knowing is the experience of reisha d’lo ityada per se, while knowing is the experience within reisha d’lo ityada of the origin of all the levels below it.

Of course, this sense of mystery should never serve as an excuse or reason for a breakdown in communication.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh is founder and director of the Gal Einai Institute and has written more than forty books exploring topics like psychology, education, medicine, politics, mathematics and relationships, through the prism of Kabbalah and numerology.
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Sharla Grossman Louisville, KY July 21, 2006

Article Good article, but for those who may not be familiar with the Laws of Family Purity, it might have been nice to include a brief explanation. As for us, my husband and I look forward to our date night away from the kinderlach, where we can just be a couple and the excitement building for that night is a continuation of our premarital anticipation of chupah night! There is a mystery and excitement that G-d has built into Torah-observant couplehood that those outside of its cover & embrace cannot comprehend or appreciate. Reply

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