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Yosef and the Battle for True Beauty (Parshas Mikeitz)

 

 

The day had finally come. For months, I had been trying to meet this famous sage, renowned not only for his wisdom, but for his physical beauty. I had heard the stories, but I wanted to experience it for myself. After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to get an appointment.

Upon arriving at the sage's house, I could barely contain my excitement. This was it, I was finally here. I knocked and patiently waited for someone to answer. A moment later, the door opened, and standing in front of me was the most hideous individual I had ever seen.

Not to worry, I thought to myself. This must be his attendant. But after the man introduced himself as the sage, my heart sank. Oh well, I thought. I should have known that he would never live up to the stories. This is what happens when you have unrealistic expectations. I considered leaving, but after coming all this way, I decided to continue as planned, spending the day with this sage.

As the day went on, it became clear that while the sage may not have been physically beautiful, he sure was a wonderful human being. He spoke with such compassion, and his kind eyes revealed tremendous depth. He treated me like a treasured friend, despite having just met me. He showed genuine interest in me; he wanted to learn my story and hear my questions. We discussed ideas, shared our experiences, and enjoyed a meaningful afternoon together. As we walked through his garden, I saw the reverence and care that he showed all forms of life, even the animals and insects. He shared his philosophy with me, but never judged me or made me feel uncomfortable.

After a long day together, he brought me back inside, and excused himself for a moment. As I sat there thinking, I finally realized the lesson I was supposed to learn. Beauty is not about the physical, it's about how we live our lives, how we choose to see the world. It's the values we embody, the character traits we develop. I was still reflecting on this when I heard the sage reenter the room. I turned my head to face him and almost passed out. There, at the entrance of the room, stood the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I was overwhelmed with shock and confusion.

The sage sat down beside me and smiled. "You probably want an explanation. Every day, people come from near and far to witness my physical beauty. After several years of teaching, I found that when someone sees my face when first encountering me, they are not able to experience all the other dimensions of my persona and character. Physical beauty can be wonderful, but without emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beauty, it is merely a distraction. I therefore decided to take a new approach. Every morning, when I greet a new guest, I disguise myself as a hideous, grotesque individual. After disregarding my physical casing, they are able to spend the day focusing on all of my other characteristics, learning, growing, and enjoying themselves. At the end of the day, I take off the disguise, and reveal my physical beauty as well. But now, the physical beauty no longer hides, but reflects everything that lies within me.

 

Yosef and Chanukah

 

Parshas Mikeitz and the story of Yosef always fall out around Chanukah.[1] This is not coincidental; the commentators discuss Yosef’s connection to Chanukah at great length. An obvious connection between Yosef and the Greeks is their association with beauty. Yosef is the only male in the Torah who is referred to as "beautiful”,[2] and the Greeks originate from Yefes, whose name literally means “beauty”. In a similar vein, the Gemara[3] states that despite the general prohibition of translating the Torah into other languages, it is permissible to translate the Torah into Greek due to the beauty of the language. What is the meaning behind this connection between Yosef and the Greeks?

 

Additionally, in Parshas Noach, Noach blesses his two sons as follows- "Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b'ohalei Shem”- Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell within the tents of Shem.[4] Yefes is the ancestor of the Greeks, and Shem is the ancestor of the Jews. This seemingly paints the Greeks as a positive force, as a beautiful nation, fitting to dwell within the framework and boundaries of Judaism. However, the Chanukah story, and other incidents throughout Jewish history, reveal a very negative and harmful relationship between the Jews and the Greeks. What then is the meaning behind the Torah’s positive portrayal of the Greeks and what is the meaning behind their beauty?

 

In order to understand why both Yosef and the Greeks are referred to as beautiful, and the powerful connection between them, we must understand the spiritual concept of beauty in all of its depth. To do so, let us trace the spiritual concept of beauty back to the creation of man, before Adam Ha’Rishon's sin.

 

Adam Ha'Rishon

 

Before Adam sinned, he looked nothing like you or I do today. When we look at one another, all we see is flesh and bone, but if you looked at Adam before he sinned, his appearance was angelic, transcendent, luminescent. The midrash says that he wore kosnos ohr, skin of light. When you looked at Adam, you didn't see his body, you saw Adam himself; his neshama, his soul. When you look at a light bulb, all you see is radiant luminescence; only if you look very closely can you just make out the surface of the bulb. The same was true regarding Adam; only if you looked very closely could you just make out his physical body. His body was transparent, with the outside loyally and fully reflecting his inner self. This is true beauty, where the inner and outer melt into a oneness, where the physical perfectly reflects the inner spirituality; where the physical projects something much deeper than itself. Beauty is the harmony and synthesis of different components, resulting in something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.[5]

 

When Adam sinned, however, the world fell, and Adam’s body fell as well. The physical no longer revealed the spiritual, but hid it. Now, when we look at each other, we don't see our true selves; all we see is a physical body. What was once light is now darkness. People can't see your inner world, your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions, your soul; all they see is your external body. Now, in order to reveal yourself to other people you must actively use the physical to reveal the spiritual; only through your words, actions, facial expressions, and body language can people gain a glimpse into who you truly are. The body used to be incandescent and reveal, now it only hides.[6] It is up to us to reveal.

 

Sarah Imeinu

 

After the sin of Adam Ha’Rishon, genuine beauty became elusive. Sarah Imeinu, however, was one of the few who still achieved this lofty feat. We know Sarah was physically beautiful, that her beauty was not just of an ethereal, spiritual nature. When Sarah and Avraham descended to Mitzrayim (Egypt), the Mitzrim (Egyptians), and even Pharaoh himself, desired her.[7] The Egyptians were steeped in immorality, interested only in beauty that ran skin deep. However, we know that Sarah Imeinu was immensely spiritual as well, that she reached the loftiest of spiritual levels.[8]

 

At the end of Parshas Noach, Rashi[9] explains that one of Sarah's other names was Yiscah. A name always reflects essence,[10] so we must ponder the meaning of this name and what it reveals about Sarah Imeinu. “Yiscah” means transparent, and Sarah's true beauty lay in her transparency. Her inner beauty completely permeated and was loyally reflected through her physical body. Genuine beauty requires the middah (character trait) of transparency, where the physical body reflects the inner and spiritual beauty, something infinitely greater than any external beauty. True beauty is oneness, where the physical and spiritual melt into a oneness, where the physical doesn’t hide the inner self, but reveals it!

 

It is therefore fitting that the shoresh (root) of the word “Yiscah” is also the shoresh of the word “schach”, the roof of the succah. According to Halacha (Jewish law), the schach is the most important part of the succah, which is why “schach” is the shoresh of “succah” as well. What, then, is the connection between transparency and schach? The answer lies in one of the deepest themes of Succos. Succos is about seeing past the illusion of independent self-security, recognizing that Hashem is our true source of protection. This is why we leave our sturdy homes and enter a diras arai, a temporary dwelling place. We show that our faith and trust lie in Hashem, not our "safe" homes. While on the surface, our security and safety seem to come only from our own efforts and hishtadlus, when we look past the surface, we recognize that everything comes from Hashem. This is why the schach is the main part of the succah- it trains us to see past the surface. The schach must be transparent, allowing you to see the stars at night. It must also be loose enough to allow some sunlight and rain to enter the Succah. Only when we have a transparent surface can we truly see what lies behind it.

 

From Light to Skin

 

The Midrash[11] explains that originally, Adam wore kosnos ohr (spelled with an aleph) - garments of light. After he sinned, Hashem clothed him in kosnos ohr (spelled with an ayin) - garments of skin.[12] When spelled with an aleph, ohr is light, when spelled with an ayin, ohr is a hide, the skin of an animal. What is the deeper meaning behind this?

 

Rav Eliyahu Dessler[13] explains the descriptions of Adam’s clothing according to the idea we previously developed. Originally, Adam's body was transparent, emanating the light of his soul. Light reveals, and his original skin revealed his true, inner self. Once he sinned, however, his body no longer revealed the spiritual, but only its physical surface. The word ohr, when spelled with an ayin, means animal hide. This skin, like its English translation, hides the soul, the inner self.[14]

 

The letter aleph is the first letter of the aleph beis. It is the letter of oneness, representing transcendence, spirituality, and Hashem, our ultimate Source and root.[15] The letter ayin represents the physical, limited expression of the aleph. This is why the word “aleph” means to elevate or lift to a higher spiritual dimension, while ayin means eye.[16] The eye, naturally, sees only the physical; however, it has the potential to see past the physical surface of reality, to source itself back to the original light of the aleph. The is why the word ayin is also connected to the word “ma'ayan”- a wellspring. A wellspring has a limiting surface. But through effort, one can peer beneath that surface, revealing something endlessly deep behind it. By delving into the depths of the wellspring, one can draw forth water - the source of life.[17] Ayin therefore reflects the concept of reaching that which is hidden, higher, and transcendent.

 

However, the ayin also has the potential to corrupt, causing us to see nothing more than the physical surface, without sourcing our physical sight back to any higher source.[18] This is why the Hebrew word iver, spelled the same way as the word ohr, means "blind". One who sees only the physical surface is blind to the truth, one who sees only the surface does not see at all. This is the unique challenge of sight. We can use it to see the physical as an expression of the spiritual, or we can become trapped by the lure of the surface, ignoring its higher root.

 

The Spiritual Purpose of Clothing

 

Before Adam sinned, he required no clothing.[19] His physical body radiated light, loyally expressing his angelic soul. Once Adam sinned, however, his physical body lost this spiritual level, no longer fully expressing the ohr (light) of his inner soul. The pasuk describes how Adam and Chava suddenly realized their nakedness and became embarrassed, desiring to cover their bodies with clothing.[20] What is the meaning behind their embarrassment, and why was clothing the ideal remedy?

 

One becomes embarrassed when the way they are perceived externally is not a true reflection of who they are[21], or at least how they believe they should be perceived. This is the spiritual concept of busha- shame. When there is a breakdown between the inner self and its outer expression, the inner self feels ashamed that it is being misrepresented, seen on the outside as something that it is not. For example, if someone tells everyone that you cheated on a test, when you did not, you would feel embarrassed, as you are being seen as something other than you really are. And even if you did cheat, you would still be embarrassed, because you know deep down inside that you are better than how you acted, and how people now perceive you.[22]

 

We wear clothes because our bodies are an embarrassment. We are souls, holy angelic beings[23], and yet we appear in the world as physical beings, with bodies only marginally different from animals. For those who understand who and what they truly are, it is embarrassing to be seen as anything less than an absolutely spiritual and transcendent being. This is the ultimate breakdown between the inner and outer self.

 

The natural response to shame is the desire to hide. For example, if someone is embarrassed in public, their immediate wish is to dig a hole and hide until everyone leaves. If that doesn't work, they might run away to a quiet room and cry alone. When we are seen as something we are not, or something we don’t want to be, we want to escape the scene. When Adam and Chava realized their nakedness, their first instinct was to grab fig leaves and hide their bodies.[24] Hashem then made them garments of ohr (skin) and clothed them with it, clothing them with dignity.[25]

 

There are two purposes of clothing. The first is to hide the embarrassment of our nakedness, but the second is to reveal our true selves, to express our dignity as tzelem Elokim. We use the very means of our failure and embarrassment as the solution to our problem. By eating from the eitz ha'da'as, our bodies no longer reflected our spiritual selves and we required clothing, but we use that very clothing to elevate ourselves and reflect who we truly are. This is why kohanim are required to wear such beautiful clothing[26], as clothing allows our physical bodies to reflect the dignity and greatness of our true selves.[27] Hashem covered Adam and Chava with ohr (clothing), so that they could uplift it, and once again reveal their true ohr (light).

 

The Potential of Clothing

 

Like all things in this world, clothing has tremendous potential when used correctly.[28] However, it can also be corrupted and misused. When used properly, clothing mitigates the shame of our physical bodies and helps us express our higher, dignified selves in the world. When misused, clothing can hide our spiritual core, portraying ourselves as completely physical beings.

 

The conflicting uses of clothing are expressed in the Hebrew word for clothing, “beged”. This word is made up of the letters beis, gimmel, and daled, the three letters that immediately follow the letter aleph. Aleph represents the spiritual root, the soul. If used correctly, our “beged” can loyally expresses our soul, our inner self, into the world. But “beged” also means traitor and treachery, because our clothing can hide who we truly are, expressing nothing more than our physical surfaces, our clothes and bodies, thus betraying our true inner selves. A traitor is one thing on the inside, but pretends to be something else on the outside. He wears a fake outer garment that does not reflect his true inner identity.[29]

 

Another word for clothing is Levush, coming from the words "lo bosh", not embarrassed. Clothing has the potential to eliminate our embarrassment, but only when used correctly. When the focus of clothing becomes the clothing themselves, failing to reveal our true selves, the clothing does nothing to prevent our existential embarrassment.

 

Me'il is yet another Hebrew word for garment, referring to an outer coat. Yet, the word that shares this same root, “me'ilah”, refers to the prohibition of stealing or benefitting from kodshim, that which was designated as holy for the Beis Ha'Mikdash (Holy Temple). The prohibition of me'ilah is taking that which is kadosh, that which is elevated and belongs to Hashem, and lowering it to a state of chol (mundane). Just as it is problematic to misuse a garment, failing to reveal anything higher, it is a problem to misuse hekdesh, lowering it from its state of kedushah (holiness) to a state of chol (mundane).

 

Tzniyus

 

One of the most misunderstood ideas in Judaism is the concept of tzniyus (modesty), especially in regards to women. Many think that tzniyus means to hide, that the ideal is not to be seen. However, there is an infinitely deeper approach to tzniyus. In this age, beauty has been corrupted. The term “beauty” generally refers to outer beauty, a surface beauty that distracts from and hides the inner self. Physical beauty is neither good nor bad, it is merely a vessel that has the potential to be used for good or bad. While the physical exterior is important, our true self is our neshama, our mind and consciousness. Our inner world, thoughts, ideas, choices, beliefs, middos, and emotions are the deepest and most genuine parts of our “self”. True beauty is when the physical serves as a vessel that expresses one’s true self, their inner essence, into the world.

 

The focus must always be on the inner beauty as the ikar, as the essence. The purpose of tzniyus is not to hide you, but to reveal you! The true you. Tzniyus shifts the focus from the external trappings to the actual self, the neshama, which lies beneath the surface and illuminates the physical vessel. True beauty requires a beautiful root and core, and the physical must be used to project that inner beauty outwards.

 

The Chanukah Battle

 

The conception of beauty was a fundamental point of contention in the battle between the Jewish People and the Greeks. The Greeks did not believe in using the physical to reflect anything higher; they viewed physical beauty as an end unto itself. Their focus was solely on the external; to them, beauty was physical perfection, detached from anything deeper. The Greeks introduced the Olympic games, competition that idolizes the physical body. For the Greeks, true godliness was physical and intellectual perfection, albeit completely detached from each other. The physical and intellectual were completely independent; mind and soul did not permeate the physical, but remained distinct and separate. This is why the Greeks come from Yefes, which means "beauty", and why their language is referred to as beautiful. Ideally, the Greeks could have reflected true beauty, a perfect harmony and oneness between physical and spiritual beauty.

 

This is the ideal that Noach hoped for when he said, “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b'ohalei Shem”- Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell within the tents of Shem.[30] Ideally, the Greeks would have harmonized with the Jews, joining the physical with the spiritual. Instead, they chose to corrupt true beauty, disconnecting the spiritual from the physical and projecting the physical as an independent end in itself.

 

Yosef and Beauty

 

Yosef is connected to Chanukah because he represents the harmony between the physical and the spiritual; he successfully utilized the physical to reflect something higher. The Torah calls him “beautiful” because his physical body projected something infinitely deeper than itself. This is the profound meaning behind the name that Pharaoh gives Yosef, Tzafnas Paneach, which means to “reveal the hidden”.[31] A name reflects inner essence[32], and Yosef's middah was true beauty, the ability to harmonize the physical with the spiritual, the hidden with the revealed. Yosef represents our victory over Greek ideology, the ability to hold on and stay true to a life of Torah, to see the physical as a reflection of something infinitely deeper than itself.

 

Yosef, Tzion, and True Beauty

 

The Greeks attacked Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), trying to disconnect us from the Beis Ha’Mikdash (Temple), the place where Hashem connects most intimately and deeply with our physical world. The place of the Beis Ha’Mikdash is referred to as Tzion, a unique, beautiful and distinguished place. The pasuk in Tehillim[33] refers to Tzion as the place of ultimate beauty: “Mi’Tzion michlal yofi”- from Tzion comes the embodiment of beauty. The Gemara explains that all of the world’s beauty was given to Tzion, and it gave a tenth of its portion (ma’aser) to the rest of the world.[34]

 

Yavan represents external, surface beauty, while Tzion represents true beauty. Yavan is comprised of the letters yud, vav, nun, while Tzion is comprised of those same three letters, along with a tzadi in front, the same root and shoresh of the word tzaddik. Yosef is referred to as “Yosef Ha’Tzaddik”, because he places the tzaddi in front of Yavan- turning surface beauty into Tzion, true beauty.[35] Yosef represents the ability to shine inner, higher beauty through a physical medium. It is no coincidence that the gematria (numerical value) of Tzion is 156, the same gematria as Yosef.

 

This is the hidden light of Chanukah, the light that illuminates the truth, helping us see that which lies beneath the surface. Beauty is much deeper than a description of how a person looks, it’s a way of life. A beautiful life is a life of oneness, where we synthesize all the aspects of who we are; where our thoughts, words, and actions all reflect a higher purpose, a higher source, a higher reality. This is the beauty of Yosef, this is the light of Chanukah.

 

[1] For a full chapter on the holiday of Chanukah, see chapter on the holiday of Chanukah (located at the end of this sefer), entitled: “Re-Examining Our Ideological Battle Against the Greeks”.

[2] Bereishis 39:6.

[3] Megillah 9b.

[4] Bereishis 9:27.

[5] To understand the spiritual concept of beauty on a deeper level, see chapter on Parshas Vayechi, sections: “The Highest Order” and “Beauty and Music”. There, we discuss Rav Dessler's 3rd level of order, where something transcendent emanates from the physical pieces themselves. See also chapter on Parshas Behar, where we discuss how the 50th (transcendent) arises when the 49 pieces (physical) are put together properly.

[6] In a deeper sense, the physical still does reveal spiritual truth, albeit in a less pure and clear fashion. For a deeper understanding of the relationship between the physical and spiritual world, and how to relate to the infinite through the finite, see chapter on the holiday of Shavuos (located at the end of this sefer), section: “The World is a Mashal”.

[7] Bereishis 12:14-15. See Rashi.

[8] See Rashi, Bereishis 23:1.

[9] Bereishis 11:29.

[10] The Hebrew word for name (shem) shares the same root as the word for soul (neshama), because a person’s name reflects their very essence.

[11] See Shnei Luchos Ha’Bris: Tetzaveh- Torah Ohr. See also Torah Temimah- Bereishis 3:21

[12] Bereishis 3:21.

[13] Michtav Mei’Eliyahu.

[14] The Ramban explains that once Adam sinned, his body “loosened” its connection to the soul,. Once this separation occurred, the physical’s connection to the infinite decreased, and therefore became more physical. The physical therefore began to deteriorate over time, as the soul is the life-force of the body. This is why human beings are now mortal.

[15] For more on the spiritual nature of the letter aleph, see chapter on Parshas Balak, section: "Aleph vs. Beis".

[16] For more on the nature of ayin, see chapter on Parshas Shelach, section: "Peh Before Ayin".

[17] This is the meaning behind “mayim chaim”. See Bereishis 26:19.

[18] For more on the potential corruption of ayin, see chapter on Parshas Metzora, section: "Nega: Corruption of Oneg

[19] Bereishis 2:25.

[20] Bereishis 3:7.

[21] Or who they believe they are.

[22] This works the other way as well. One will feel embarrassed if other people think they are greater than they actually are. Aharon Ha'Kohen would befriend resha'im (evil people), so that they would feel embarrassed. They would think to themselves, "Why is he talking to me? He must think I'm a good person. I better become the kind of person he actually thinks I am, before he finds out the truth!"

[23] See chapter on Parshas Vayelech, section: “Soul Questions: What Are We?”

[24] Bereishis 3:7.

[25] Bereishis 3:21

[26] Especially the Kohen Gadol.

[27] Our faces do not need clothing, as they still reflect human dignity (ziv hapanim) and our individual uniqueness. Our hands as well do not require clothing, as they loyally reveal who we are through our actions.

[28] For a fuller explanation of the concept of potential, see chapter on Parshas Bo.

[29] Chazal compare Esav to a pig (Bereishis Rabbah 65:1 and Vayikra Rabbah 13:5. See Rashi, Bereishis 26:34): a pig makes an external show of being kosher due to its split hooves; but in truth, on the inside, it's completely treif (as it doesn’t chew its cud). So too, Esav pretended to be a tzaddik on the outside, putting on a show for Yitzchak, but on the inside, he was twisted and corrupt. This is also why Esav wore Adam's garment, to make himself appear holy on the outside. Yaakov, however, is described as having the ziv hapanim of Adam, the light of Adam's face - true spiritual greatness. This greatness was revealed on the outside, but as an expression of something genuine existing within. (For more on this topic, see chapter on Parshas Toldos.)

[30] Bereishis 9:27.

[31] Bereishis 41:43.

[32] The Hebrew word for name (shem) shares the same root as the word for soul (neshama), because a person’s name reflects their very essence.

[33] Tehillim, 50:2.

[34] Kiddushin 49b.

[35] While the common spelling of the letter צ is tzaddi, there is a very old tradition of referring to the letter צ as “tzaddik” as well. See Shabbos 104a.See also Magen Dovid, letter tzaddik. See also Osiyos d’Rabbi Akiva and Sefer Ha’Bahir for more examples of the צ-tzaddik connection.

  

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