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Beauty of the Beast

Beauty of the Beast


I recently met a woman whose teeth reminded me of a picket fence bumped by a van. Packed tight in her mouth, they overlapped top and bottom, front and back. Yet she was one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. We sat at a luncheon table and between talk she gently prodded arugula and jikama salad into her mouth. Lips closed, her eyes smiled and said, "Mmmm! Sooo glad to be here!" Her presence was happy, and real, and alive. How different, I thought, from the perfect smiles of so many mouths car-pooled to and from the orthodontist over so many winter-through-spring afternoons. I've seen my fair share of them. They remind me of paintings that are full of technical prowess but devoid of soul. And although their wearers might feel safe in their assurance that they "look good," the smiles leave my heart and sensibilities untouched.

At one point, I took to drawing on brown paper lunch bagsActually, I often find myself at odds with a culture that holds us to a standard of slickness, of airbrushed images and perfect lives. As an artist, I'm on the lookout for the shadows between the light, for the disproportion in the symmetry, and for a touch of madness in the sanity. In teaching children to draw, I am always delighted by the little ones' messes and scratches and rehashes that somehow capture the beauty of their subject, and its inner point. And I feel sad when they suddenly lose that freedom and become attached to perfection, when they rub out their erasings and give up in disgust of their creations. Yet even then, I try to remind myself that those moments are themselves shadows on a much larger canvas that spans many years and different places.

I've learned this by force of experience. I, too, have whitewashed canvases and torn up drawings in exasperation. At one point, I took to drawing on brown paper lunch bags in an attempt to come to terms with my personal shadows and technical incompetence. My hope was that by making marks on a worthless paper bag, I would surrender attachment to the relative worth of what I was doing. Practice is a powerful teacher.

I have also learned these concepts from the teachings of our sages. These lessons are more cerebral. They lack the visceral jolt that only a canvas can give. On the other hand, they realign me at my core, and once my thinking is set aright, I can come to the practice of art from a new point within myself.

One such mental master-class I took is from the Talmud in Tractate Nedarim.1 The Talmud relates a dialogue between a Tannaitic sage and a Roman noblewoman.

The daughter of the Caesar once exclaimed to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, "Such a beautiful Torah in such an ugly vessel?! How is it that one as ugly as you contains such wondrous and fine wisdom?"2

Rabbi Yehoshua responded, "Learn from your father's household. In what do they store wine?"

"In earthenware vessels," she said.

"The whole world uses earthenware vessels! And you – the Royal family – also use earthenware vessels!? You should store it in vessels of silver and gold."

She left and had the wine placed in barrels of silver and gold. As a result, it turned sour.

When she came to tell him what had happened, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya responded, "And the Torah is just the same. It is best preserved in me because I am ugly."

"But there are handsome men who are learned!" Caesar's daughter protested.

"If they were ugly," Rabbi Yehoshua replied, "they would be even more learned."

It is more difficult for a beautiful person to attain humilityOne entry point into this story is the commentary of our sages explaining that the Torah can be compared to water, wine and milk.3 Just as these substances are best stored in plain vessels, so too, the Torah is best preserved in those who are humble. Why? G‑d tells us, "He and I cannot live side by side." "He" is our ego, which is the antithesis of a G‑d whose Oneness precludes anything else from having an independent existence. G‑d means "there is nothing besides Him" and ego means "me and nothing else!" So humility is a prerequisite container and preserver of the holy Torah. And it is more difficult for a beautiful person to attain humility.

On another level, I think the story speaks generally of the shadows and messiness and disproportion we all live with. We are trained to put everything into gold and silver vessels. It's the airbrush effect. Botox, facelifts and bodies wrapped tough with muscle are just the start. We want a perfect life. It ought look like the snapshots on the covers and insides of family magazines! Smiling is good and tears are bad. Youth is wonderful, aging is awful, old age is worse. Always have a grand old time, don't worry, be happy. And even if the outing was sour as vinegar, store it in a silver decanter. But, says Rabbi Yehoshua, the truth is that the perfection of life lies precisely in the barrels of wood and clay. It is because of, and not despite the shadows, that we have rich wine, fresh water, wholesome milk and true Torah. It is because we struggle and suffer that we shine. When we train ourselves to see the beauty of the beast, we come to understand purpose differently. And in some magical way, the shadows become light.

I know this too from experience. The instant I met my husband, I recognized him as my soulmate. In my mind, I thanked G‑d for sending me my other half. But it took Avrem more than the blink of an eye to get it that we'd been destined for each other since before time. I waited patiently for him to recognize this truth. After we finally got engaged, I asked, "So when did you realize?"

"I knew it when you saw my hands."

In a heartbeat I knew what he was referring to. My husband's hands are burnt. But thank G‑d, they have healed well. I'm real observant but even I didn't notice it until the third time we met, as Avrem reached for a glass on the table.

"Other women I had dated were repulsed by my hands. I saw them see the scars and recoil. But when you noticed, that's all you did. There was no judgment. Just observation."

It was true. There was no thought of "I don't want those hands touching me." His hands were strong. I wondered how they came to be burnt. That was it. My fiancé was telling me that it was my ability to see the beauty of that particular beast that had rendered me beautiful enough to capture his heart.

We cannot remain attached to reality being a particular wayIn some sense, whether or not we are beautiful is irrelevant. The real issue is our attitude to our beauty – whether of the body or of our life story. When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya replies to the noblewoman's challenge that there are handsome men who are learned, he says, "If they were plain, they would be even more learned." On the words Iy'havu sanu, "if they were homely," Tosfot4 understands the words to mean "if they would hate."5 In other words, if these scholars would be dismissive of their own beauty, they would be even more learned. We cannot remain attached to reality being a particular way. Once we label "what is" as ugly, we lose access to the fact that this too is from G‑d Who directs everything and Who is the essence of good. And the same applies when we label "what is" as beautiful. At that moment, we reveal that we are attached to having the universe run on our terms and that we pride ourselves on the beauty. It's not that there aren't beauties and beasts. It's how I relate to and frame it that makes all the difference.

Some of life is fragrant and, quite frankly, some of it stinks. But I need to know that those labels and interpretations are by and large my own impositions on G‑d's infinite canvas. He's working a much bigger picture than I can conceive of. It's been in the making for thousands of years and it's painted with the red and black blood of my ancestors as well as with their radiant acts of kindness and self-sacrifice.

The earth tones span the soil of the Holy Land, Europe, Africa and America. The greens are those of pine firs and pomegranate trees, guava leaves and kale. There are green eyes and there's green envy. Green cash and green bile. Reds of rubies and rage and morning runs or work in the field, tomatoes and temptation. Red and yellow and green and brown and blue! Colors as vibrant and as dark as the collective image of our unique souls. I must observe and let go. As Rabbi Yehoshua exhorts his questioner, I must embrace my wood and clay, resist repulsion. And on the other hand, "if he would hate" – I must avoid pride and attachment to beauty, to things going my way. For G‑d is painting a canvas with my being. The work is called "Redemption." And the palette is all the colors of my life.

My acquaintance's picket-fence teeth spoke to me of all this. They were pearly white. Not the kitchen-sink tile variety that folks today duplicate with bleach. Pearly white. Some white, some cream, some shine, some blemish. Like life.


Talmud Nedarim 50b


According to one opinion, Rabbi Yehoshua's face was blackened on account of his many fasts.


Taanit 7a


To Taanit 7a


] The word sanu can mean "ugly" or "hated" depending upon whether it is spelled with the Hebrew letter samech or sin.

Shimona Tzukernik is the creator of The Method, a therapeutic application of Kabbalah for individuals and corporations seeking spiritually based transformation. Known as “The Kabbalah Coach,” she has counseled hundreds of individuals, and now offers coaching certification in The Method. She is also an internationally recognized speaker and author for the Rohr JLI. Shimona has been featured in media around the world including a documentary by National Geographic and NickMom’s “Take Me to your Mother.”
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Anonymous Blaine, MN November 8, 2009

Beauty inward vs. outward I think this writing emphasis the socially and culturally controversial fact that we should not be more concerned about the outward appearance then we are about our inward beauty which is far more important. Not that we should not care about what we look like because there is nothing wrong with taking time to make yourself outwardly beautiful...even wearing some make-up. But like Rabbi Yehoshua said it's not necessarily about not being outwardly attractive it’s about "hating" or dismissing your beauty. Outward beauty is not a sin but it has no relevance to the true person encompassed within. Who you are is determined by how ugly or beautiful you are on the inside. Thank you for shedding more light on this topic. I enjoyed reading this article! Blessing! Reply

Y April 9, 2008

Ezra correction: it was Ezra who made the takana (enactment) about the peddlers Reply

Y April 5, 2008

but Shimona ... But Shimona, you are tall and striking. What if you weren't? The woman with the crooked teeth you describe as beautiful! So perhaps she was beautiful despite her crooked teeth ... I just don't see extolling a crowded mouth of teeth and making it sound as though straight teeth (and some are born with them!) are somehow boring (?!)

And what about the cosmetics that fell with the manna for the women? And what about Hille's takana that peddlers go around and sell cosmetics to women? What about "ein isha ela l'yofi"?

Are we now promoting no makeup and the natural look as the epitome of beauty and suggesting that enhancing one's looks is superficial and undesirable?! Reply

Lesley (Leah) Hubbard Laurel, Maryland April 5, 2008

Beauty of the Beast Looks, looks, looks. If I read one more article about the "importance of a person's looks" I'll lose my lunch. What are we teaching our little ones as a result of our society's fasination with so-called beauty?

Beauty to me is my husband's face when he smiles at me, for one thing. For another, it's when I see Spring finally appearing in our part of the country. I could go on and on. There has to be some way that we can put a halt to the superficiality of outward appearances and see the beauty beneath. Reply

Chani Shemtov Chicago, IL April 3, 2008

Thanks Shimona,
I really enjoyed your article. It's amazing how some peoples beauty develop as you get to know them and others diminish. And that type of beauty doesn't die with age. Reply

Anonymous Washington, DC via April 3, 2008

thank you... I appreciate your warm and gracious lesson - the humor is evident, as is the teaching. My first excursion into a Chabad website. Thank you. Reply

Shimona Tzukernik April 3, 2008

To Anonymous I relate so deeply to your words. My teenage years too were fraught with the conflict between my knowledge that what counted was the inside, and on the other hand my need to be accepted by others. I have learned that living life from the inside out is the most joyous and true path - not that I manage to do that even now...And when you live from that place, you empower others to live that way too. You give them permission to be who they really are on the inside. And that helps shifts the world such that we are redeemed by Mashiach when each person will see the inner dimension of reality.


Anonymous brklyn, ny April 2, 2008

realness im just a teenager reading this amazing article. it helps me so much emotionally because these are the days when we are young and trying to attract as much as attention as possible. but this article is showing me that this is not the true value of life. Reply

chaya April 1, 2008

great article Reply

Dominique Francon NY, NY March 31, 2008

apologetics? The French writer Stendhal describes the process, or mental metamorphosis, in which unattractive characteristics of a new love are transformed into perceptual diamonds of shimmering beauty as 'crystallization'.

In my personal opinion it's a load of repressive, subjectivist drivel.

If it's a game of [cherry picking] citation there are more than enough to support my point of view. Reply

EJ Victoria, Canada March 30, 2008

the beauty and the beast Thank you so much for this wonderful article Shimona!!! My 16 yr old daughter and I were standing at the bus stop yesterday having a conversation about inner and outer beauty. I was noticing during our trip out to the city, that most women wore make up, no matter how young or old, or state of health. I have not worn makeup since a teenage myself and recently had been comparing myself to others.After mentioning this to my daughter,she said she compared too.. but realized that her looks were 'real' and others just got good at makeup application!! When people see her, they get the real her.
She felt proud of that. What is on the inside is what really matters.. the light and vibrancy coming from the inside out!!

You said it so wonderfully!! Reply

Chaya Rivka March 30, 2008

Another gem, Shimona!! Reply

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