December 18, 2003
In the Eyes of the Beholder
Chanukah/Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
Part of my traditional upbringing as a yeshiva bocher was the belief that anything that took my attention away from a page of Talmud was bitul Torah -- a waste of time. And while that may have been a good lesson for an easily distracted teenager, I have since discovered as an adult that there is so much Divine beauty in the world that we forfeit if we keep our noses exclusively inside our books.
Esthetic beauty -- be it found in a poem, a piece of music, a sunset over the ocean -- is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, something that is esthetically pleasing can be an uplifting, spiritual experience, a means of becoming closer to the Source, to God. Beauty can bring light into the world. But so often, when physical beauty is an end unto itself, the opposite is true, and the values of Dorian Gray -- self-absorption and superficiality -- prevail.
In Hebrew there are a number of words to describe beauty. One is yofi, which describes an external, visible beauty. Another is chen, which describes an internal special quality that radiates to the outside. Someone need not be a supermodel to effuse chen, even if she or he lacks the external yofi.
This week, both the Torah and holiday cycles focus on the idea of beauty. Joseph had both yofi and chen; not only was he physically stunning, he also radiated a nonphysical charm and charisma. But while it was his yofi that made him an object of lust to Mrs. Potiphar, it was his chen that allowed him to ascend to greatness in Egypt.
The excessive pursuit of yofi was the tragic flaw of ancient Greek civilization. The Greeks' emphasis on esthetic beauty -- be it in the human body, art or architecture -- was evident in their pantheons and gymnasiums. It is thus no coincidence that Greece was notorious for both beauty and hubris.
What did our people accomplish during the days of the Maccabees? It was far more than just a military victory. By living in a Greek society, we adopted some of Greece within ourselves. We conquered ancient Greece, which is not to say that we rejected it altogether, but rather that we were able to control it. The yofi, which was so negative and destructive in the hands of the Greeks, was now something that we could control. Greece taught us that there is inherent value to esthetic beauty; that beauty does enhance a person's life.
Only when beauty is left unbridled is it problematic; when it is controlled under the rubric of the Torah, then yofi becomes chen, the deeper, more meaningful beauty. Using the power of Torah and spirituality, we converted the Greek yofi into the Jewish chen.
Just as our ancestors conquered Greece, and converted yofi to chen, so can we.
That's what the lights of Chanukah teach us. Light represents the radiation of physical beauty. Indeed, the talmudic sages often describe something esthetically beautiful as "radiating a light." But more: we say in the "Hanerot Halalu" song, "V'ain lanu reshut lehishtamesh bahem" -- "We have no permission to utilize these lights." This is a message that Judaism is not just utilitarian; there is more to religious life than functionality. Esthetics count for something, and we signify this by limiting ourselves to looking at the beautiful Chanukah lights, and no more.
The Divine can be found not only in a verse of Bible or a page of Talmud, but also in a beautiful sunset and a beautiful piece of music. This is all part of the Almighty's beautiful world, a beauty that is here to elevate us spiritually. If we look for God, He is there.
May you have a beautiful, joyous Chanukah. Â
Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.