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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chayei Sarah: Complete beauty
"Sarah's life was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years." Everyone gazed at Sarah's beauty. It seems strange that our sages should be so interested in the beauty of people. Sarah was complete both in soul and body. Sarah retained the natural beauty of her childhood. Shimon the Righteous was once visited by a Nazirite who was extremely handsome with long beautiful hair. Although he lived long after the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan's family still had retained some of that outer beauty that reflected their inner purity. After the destruction of the Temple, it was no longer clear from the outer appearance what kind a person was in the inside. Whenever the Torah and our sages describe the beauty of a person, it is referring to this kind of beauty that describes a completeness of both the body and the soul.
Sarah at 127
At the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Bereishis 23:1) it says, "And Sarah's life was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah." Our sages point out the redundant expressions of years repeated several times in this verse. Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabbah (58:1) that explains that this repetition comes to teach us that at the age of one hundred, Sarah was as sinless as a twenty year old. Just as someone up to the age of twenty is not punished by the Heavenly Court, Sarah at the age of one hundred had nothing to be punished for. The Midrash continues to explain that at twenty she was as beautiful as a seven year old.
We find that our sages make further mention of the special beauty of Sarah. The Talmud (Megillah 14a, quoted by Rashi Bereishis 11:29) explains that Iscah was another name for Sarah. People called Sarah by the name of Iscah since the meaning of this word is "to gaze". On the one hand, this described Sarah's ability to gaze into the future by Divine inspiration. Sarah was even superior in her level of prophecy to Abraham (see Rashi Bereishis 21:12). On the other hand, she was given this name, says the Talmud, because everyone gazed at her beauty. As a matter of fact, the Talmud (ibid 15a) describes her as being one of the four most beautiful women who ever existed. The other three were Rachav, Abigail and Esther or Vashti.
Is beauty significant?
The Maharal, in his commentary on Rashi, questions what is the significance to praise Sarah in regard to her beauty. The same question arises later in this week's portion where it says about Rivka (Bereishis 24:16): "And the girl was very good looking." In Parashas Vayeitzei (Bereishis 29:17) as well the Torah describes the beauty of Rachel. As it says, "And Rachel had a beautiful form and a beautiful appearance." Similarly, we find that the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) describes the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan who used to refer to himself as being the scion of one of the beautiful families of Jerusalem. The Talmud further elaborates and says that the beauty of Rabbi Kahana was somewhat similar to the beauty of Rabbi Avahu whose beauty was somewhat similar to our Patriarch Jacob. And the beauty of Jacob was somewhat similar to the beauty of Adam. It seems strange that our sages should be so interested in the beauty of people. Does not King Solomon say (Mishlei 31:30) "Grace is false, and beauty is vain. A G'd fearing woman, she should be praised"?
Complete in soul and body
The Maharal explains that on a simple level we can understand it in the following way: Every person is comprised of two parts, the body and the soul. When the Torah describes the life of Sarah, it tells us that she was complete both in soul and body. Throughout her life she endured many difficult situations. She was childless for ninety years, and when she generously let Abraham marry her maidservant Hagar, Hagar constantly insulted her (see Bereishis 16:1-6). Twice she was taken against her will to the royal palaces, once to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and once to Avimelech, King of Gerar (see Bereishis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18). Through all her ordeals she kept strong in her faith and her acts and deeds were free of sin. In addition to this, the Torah describes that her outer appearance was also without any blemish. Sarah was not praised for her beauty in itself but as part of her completeness. This is also indicated by the Midrash Rabba (ibid) as the Midrash describes Sarah as a complete person without any blemish.
Some commentaries (Chizkuni and Bartenura) point out that in general one would refer to a twenty-year old woman as being more beautiful than a seven-year old girl. So why do our sages compare Sarah's appearance at twenty to be as beautiful as a seven-year old? They explain that the beauty of a seven-year old is natural without any cosmetics to enhance it. Even at the age of twenty Sarah did not require any cosmetics to enhance her beauty. She had retained the natural beauty of her childhood. We may add that the beauty of a child reflects the child's purity and innocence. In general, this kind of beauty disappears when the child grows older, but the Torah points out that Sarah was as pure when she was twenty as when she was seven.
Shimon the Righteous and the Nazirite
Rabbi Yitzhak Salant makes an additional comment. On the one hand, the Torah testifies that Sarah was free of sin right up to her old age of one hundred and beyond, and at the same she is being described as a most beautiful woman. This double praise has a special significance. Very often people of excessive beauty will fall prey to their evil inclination and live a sinful life. The Talmud (Nedarim 9b) relates how the great sage, Shimon the Righteous, was once visited by a Nazirite who was extremely handsome with long beautiful hair. The Nazirite was on his way to the Temple to bring his offering at the end of his period of abstinence when he would shave off his hair. The sage addressed him and said, "My son, what brought you to decide to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?" Said the Nazirite, "I was a shepherd for my father back home and I went to fill water from the well. As I looked into the well, and saw my own image in the water, my evil inclination got the better of me, and wanted to push me to sin. I said, 'You wicked one, why are you so proud in a world that is not yours, regarding someone who eventually will turn into worms and maggots? I swear, I am going to shave you off for the honour of Heaven." When the sage heard this, he stood up and gave him a kiss on his forehead and said, "My son, may there be many Nazirites amongst the Jewish people like you." Says Rabbi Salant, the Torah here gives Sarah the ultimate praise that despite her special beauty, G'd Himself testified to her completeness in every aspect of her life and that not even once had she sinned.
Outer beauty and inner purity
Almost fourty years ago, I heard a talk by Rabbi Shimon Schwab who discussed the significance of Rabbi Yochanan describing himself as a scion of one of the beautiful families of Jerusalem. Rabbi Schwab explained that right up to the destruction of the Second Temple, we find that there was a close connection between a person's inner purity and outer beauty. Although Rabbi Yochanan lived long after the destruction of the Temple (see Tosaphoth Bava Metzia 89a), his family had still retained some of that outer beauty that reflected their inner purity.
Face reflects the inside
Similarly, my late father would point out that the Hebrew word for face, "panim", is written in the exact same way as the Hebrew word for inside, "penim". This indicates that the face of a person reflects the inside of that individual. This is how it was right from the beginning of creation up to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. During that era G'd led this world in a revealed fashion, and reward and punishment were clear consequences of a person's conduct. At that time one could also see the inside of a person reflected in his outer appearance. After the destruction of the Temple, G'd hid Himself. As it says (Devarim 31:16-17) "And this people will rise up and stray … and will forsake Me and break My covenant … and My anger will flare up against it on that day. And I will forsake them and I will hide My face from them." From then on and right through our exile, we cannot clearly see the guiding hand of G'd in world affairs. Everything is concealed and shrouded behind veils as we are not worthy of such a revealed guidance. We are constantly tested to see whether we keep our faith in G'd despite His concealing Himself. This is also reflected in every part of creation. As the Talmud says (Sotah 48a) "From the day of the destruction of the Temple the taste of the fruit has vanished [compared to what it used to be]." It the same way, the pure beauty that reflects an inner pureness has in general ceased to exist.
Whenever the Torah and our sages describe the beauty of a person, it is referring to this kind of beauty that describes a completeness of both body and soul. As the Midrash Rabbah (ibid) introduces this week's portion with the words of King David (Tehillim 37:18): "G'd knows the days of the complete people, and their inheritance will be eternal." Says the Midrash, "Just as they are complete, so are their days complete." Our most righteous Matriarch, Sarah, was complete without any blemish, in body and soul. Her days were fully utilized, both in good times and in difficult times, assisting her great husband, Abraham, proclaiming and sanctifying the name of G'd. In complete harmony they helped their fellow human beings and they provided them with their needs for both body and soul with their acts of lovingkindness.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network