WHAT IS BEAUTY?
Beauty. The very word conjures up powerful feelings. No one is immune to its allure; we all are drawn to beautiful things. And yet, the definition of beauty remains a mystery, fraught with paradox. What is beauty? Is it external or internal? How can someone be beautiful on the outside and not on the inside, or the other way around? Is beauty in the eyes of the beholder, or does it have objective features?
Our society – as well as all societies throughout history – is obsessed with beauty. Witness what lengths people will go to, stopping everything they are doing – even to the point of embarrassment – when they are attracted to a beautiful sight. We have a multi-billion dollar beautification industry – offering every possible product and concoction, valuable or worthless, helpful or destructive, promising the “fountain of youth,” to maintain the perceived beauty of the body and face. Watch how many hours people spend on preening, tucking, combing, dying, botoxing, concealing, revealing, tightening, coloring – and every other possible verb, even to the point of self-torture and mutilation – to project a beautiful image, even if beneath the surface of the portrait of Dorian Gray lies a grotesque visage…
Ahh, beauty – the ultimate vanity. And ultimate paradox.
And yet, beauty is not evil. Indeed, beauty is a Biblical virtue reflecting spiritual and sublime perfection. Our sacred Matriarchs are lauded for their beauty – “yefat mareh,” “yefat toar.” And according to the mystics, the appeal of physical beauty is rooted in the balance of spiritual harmony. Humans are attracted to beauty – even physical beauty – because it reflects Divine symmetry.
So how do we reconcile the two – the obsession with superficial beauty and its inner counterpart?
The Baal Shem Tov, in explaining an enigmatic verse in this week’s Torah portion, provides us with a, yes, beautiful insight into the essential nature of beauty – below and above, and how we can integrate the two.