February 14, 2008
More than skin deep
Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)
A holy day approaches: a day of judgment. Mundane activity will cease as we hearken to the call for worship in awe and reverence. Echoing from high-definition flat screens across the land: the not-so-still, not-so-small voice of Reb Joan Rivers will usher in the sacrosanct festival of The Oscars.
Lo, the venerated ritual will commence as it is written: "And thou shalt command the egos of every man, woman and teenager to heed the superficiality of the red carpet procession and listen with fervor to the commentary on pretentious external appearance" (People Magazine 1:1).
The nation will join in celebration of ostentation. Entranced by lavish clothing, shiny jewels and perfecting cosmetics, we will affirm a commitment to worship outward show: the humble servants of beauty, the People of the Look.
I could offer a series of chastising remarks about the epidemic preoccupation with beauty infecting the Jewish population, but I won't. We need not pretend to agree that true beauty is as absent from superficial sight as Moses' name from Parshat Tetzaveh.
This portion validates the inner Jewish American Prince/Princess within us all. Exodus 28 is a permission slip for superficiality -- conveying that attention to beauty in the physical realm is not only acceptable, but moreover is a crucial component in our revelation of God.
Following instructions for creating the eternal flame, Tetzaveh describes the manufacture of priestly attire, providing style specifications that make a mockery of red carpet couture. Materials of "blue and purple, and scarlet, and fine twisted linen ... delicately wrought [metals] ... chains of pure gold" (Exodus 28:8-13) comprise the High Priest's garments. Also included is jewelry: rubies and sapphires and diamonds (oh my!). It could inspire the most spiritual among us to drop our granola and run for Neiman Marcus without remorse.
Twice the text repeats "and thou shalt make holy garments ... for honor and for beauty" (Exodus 28:2, 28:40).
For beauty, eh? The most holy of individuals are commanded by God to dress in the highest quality and most dazzling outfits -- for the same reason that inspires us today: to look good.
As early as Genesis 2:9, "God caused every kind of tree to grow from the ground, attractive to the sight and good for food." From the very beginning, looking good trumped deeper qualities of value in the Divine's creative priorities. Apparently, God has us hardwired and sanctified in His image for preoccupation with beauty, and Tetzaveh only reiterates this truth.
Concentration on physical attractiveness as a determinant of honor is justified because it inspires our sensitivity to symmetry, order and harmony in the physical cosmos (derived from the Greek word cosmetikos, which has the dual meaning of "a sense of harmony and order" and "one skilled in adorning").
By engaging the earthly aspect of our soul in appreciation of orderliness via beautification of the body, our consciousness can attend to the harmony beyond form as well. The body, in other words, aligns with the spirit when it apprehends something beautiful -- and together they ignite the glowing light of Sacred Marriage: the tzelem (image) of Elohim that is the spiritual container of human physical form.
Be it High Priest or hot celebrity, efforts to look good help realize God on earth through an alignment of thought with the principles of order and perfection inherent in the Creator. This convergence of body and soul is comparable to the "pure olive oil beaten for light, that causes the flame to burn always" (Exodus 27:20). The tension of the eternal flame's conflicting energies -- surging upward toward heaven and then tightening back toward its source of oil in order to sustain its existence -- is the same fluctuation that occurs between our physical and spiritual selves. Our attendance to superficial beauty converging with our spiritual longing to be free from physical confinement are precisely the opposing energies that spark the illumination of the Divine -- within and without.
Our taking pleasure in corporeal order was designed by God to be the oil that connects us to earth and allows us to ascend; love of harmony begets alignment of consciousness with order, in spirit as well as body. Conversely, attendance to disorder and neglect elicits disturbance and brokenness (translated literally as rah, otherwise known as evil): conditions that inhibit the presence of God in our midst.
So come the holy day of Oscar, feel free to gawk at every last gown and shayna punim displayed on the red carpet. And when it's over, go shopping, get made up, and decadently inhabit your body so as to inspire your soul. The Divine cannot manifest without our being grounded enough in our corporeality to receive it.
As much as we are of Spirit, so, too, are we connected with the earth -- in embellishing the latter, we honor the former.
Buy some gemstones, allow them to restore your connection to the sacred ground from which they came and let their display reorder your thoughts through the iridescent beauty of Shechinah -- reflecting back light descending in love from Her consort. Her beauty cannot thrive in hiddenness. She is to be adorned and admired via her many children. With each act of beauty we create and/or witness, we make manifest the harmony and the eternal light of our beloved Source of Creation.
Let it be God's will that our visits to the cosmetics counter reaffirm the ordering principles of creation. Let us be present to the truth that any moment of appreciation and apprehension of beauty -- however superficial -- can ignite the eternal light of the Divine: In whose image we are called to shine in all of our glitz and glam.
Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.