The Mishnah, compiled around 1,800 years ago, recalls the great match-making event that would take place twice a year:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur, when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out… and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? Young man, please lift up your eyes and consider what you choose for yourself as a wife. Do not set your eyes toward beauty, but set your eyes toward a good family, as the verse1 states: “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain; only a woman who fears the L‑rd, she shall be praised.”2

We have depicted a sweet scene of maidens waltzing in the vineyards, but at its heart, this was the ultra-serious business of marriage. The young women of Jerusalem had their priorities straight, and called upon the young men to focus on what is truly important. To this end, they cited the verse declaring beauty to be nothing but vanity, and praising piety as true virtue.

But here is where it gets confusing. If fear of G‑d is the only thing truly praiseworthy, why do they call upon the young men to “set your eyes toward a good family”? Surely, the woman’s family is not what matters, but her own personal spirituality. If piety is the only true yardstick, why don’t they ask the men to focus on piety alone?

It is also impossible to imagine that all the dancers were from distinguished families. Surely, most of the young women would not benefit by making their lineage the basis for selection, as that would only favor those from the elite social classes. Why, then, does the Mishnah state that this was the refrain of all those who participated in this matrimonial dance?

The Talmud cites a Beraita (a passage from the same period of the Mishnah, but not included in the Mishnaic text) which offers additional detail:

The Sages taught: What would the beautiful women among them say? Set your eyes toward beauty, as a wife is only for her beauty. What would those of distinguished lineage among them say? Set your eyes toward family, as a wife is only for children. What would the unattractive ones among them say? Acquire your purchase for the sake of Heaven...”

If this passage was supposed to add clarity, it seems to only add to the confusion. If “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain,” as the Mishnah has the girls saying, why would the attractive women promote appearance as their greatest virtue? Shouldn’t they stick to what is truly important? Surely that should be the motive for all the matches!?

The Rebbe suggests that the only way to understand this story is through a radical reinterpretation of the word “family.” Those matchmaking events may have been fun, but first and foremost they were a sacred occasion. Both the men and the women, young as they may have been, were being called upon to live up to Judaism’s highest spiritual ideals of marriage.

All the “daughters of Jerusalem” believed that nobility of spirit and devoutness were the measure of a person. They also declared that every single one of them possessed such qualities by virtue of them being from the “family” of Israelites, descendants of our holy forebears. By “family,” those maidens meant the decent and nurturing families in which they were raised. More broadly, however, they referred to the entire Jewish People of which they were a part, and whose values they upheld.3

Indeed, there was no contradiction between trumpeting the “fear of G‑d” and declaring their pride in their “family.” In essence, they are one and the same. Some of the young women would have more noticeably embodied those virtues – those were the “beautiful ones,” whose noble qualities were more pronounced. But there were also those who outwardly were not yet the personification of the values they claimed as their own – those were the “unattractive ones.”

But they all came from the same “family,” all with equal potential to blossom into a highly praiseworthy “woman who fears the L‑rd.” It was merely that those virtues had yet to be revealed. All the noble qualities were present just beneath the surface, waiting to be nurtured into full bloom. Their hearts were good and their souls pure; if only someone could see what they could become!

Thus, says Rebbe says, the most important words in this story are the ones most overlooked: “Young man, please lift up your eyes.” The young women were saying, “If you don’t see the beauty in me, it is because there is something wrong with your eyesight.” If only you would elevate your gaze, you would realize the true value of every single one of us.

Isaiah called on us to “Raise our eyes heavenward.”4 If only we would look correctly, we’d see the real beauty of every person. Our eyes help us see, but they also condemn us to blindness – they allow us to see only to a very superficial degree. Unable to perceive beneath the surface, we misjudge and misconstrue.

The Talmud5 tells a story about a young man who rejected a poor young lady he found unattractive. The great sage Rabbi Yishmael took her into his home and took proper care of her. He later invited the young man to his home. Upon seeing the young lady, he found her most beautiful. The rabbi told the shocked boy, “You know this is the same woman you swore you would never marry!” The story concludes thus: “Thereupon Rabbi Yishmael wept and said: The daughters of Israel are beautiful; it is only poverty that renders them ugly.”

This girl was beautiful all along, but the boy couldn’t see it. That is why Rabbi Yishmael cried, because of how sad and tragic it is that so many people are misjudged due to others’ superficiality. That is why the “daughters of Jerusalem” danced in the vineyards and called upon their would-be suitors to “lift up your eyes,” to learn how to see things clearly, so they would recognize the beauty and potential within.

The lesson is clear: In all relationships, we can be too quick to write people off, because they appear “ugly” to us. Often, we take one quick glance, and if we don’t like what we see, we speedily reject. And yet, beneath the surface lies endless potential, if only we had the patience to look for and nurture it. There is so much goodness and holiness in people; it is our duty to reveal it. Are we looking properly? What we see has a lot to do with what we are looking for. Are our eyes gazing heavenward, or are we staring into the gutter?