The Greeks invented human beauty. At least, that’s what the world thinks. Western civilization’s obsession with the human form, handsomely exploited by the fashion, cosmetics, entertainment, and advertising industries, all have a root in ancient Greek values.
The Torah itself testifies (Noach 9:27), “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes — Hashem endowed Yefes [the forefather of the Greek nation] with beauty” (see Megillah 9b). The Greeks’ very name contains the word for beauty, yofi, and a name is a person’s essence.
But that is only half the story. The pasuk continues, “V’yishkon b’ahalei Shem.” This can be understood as saying that the true beauty of Yefes can only be expressed when it is anchored in the tents of Shem, the antecedent of the Jewish People. Beauty in its purest form is found in the world of Torah.
Ten portions of beauty came down to the world and Yerushalayim took nine (Kiddushin 49b). In other words, all beauty belongs to Yerushalayim, it just shares its maaser (tithe) with the rest of the world! Yerushalayim is referred to as Tziyon, which Dovid Hamelech (Tehillim 50:9) describes as the essence of beauty.
In male human form, beauty is defined by Yosef Hatzaddik. He is the only male in Chumash who is described as beautiful. He is, “yefeh to’ar v’yefeh mareh — handsome in form and handsome in appearance” (Mikeitz 39:6).
The Midrash in Mikeitz describes the extraordinary effect of his handsomeness on the people of Egypt. Yosef has the same gematria as Tziyon, 156, because just as Yerushalayim is the quintessential beauty in this world, Yosef is the quintessential beauty in humanity.
Chazal teach us that maaseh Avos, siman l’banim, the actions of the Avos are the spiritual seeds of Jewish history. Every dramatic chapter of our legacy has its roots in Sefer Bereishis. Where do we find the Chanukah story? The prophet Zecharyah (9:9) reveals that it is in the story of Yosef. Interestingly, we always read his history during the Shabbos leining of Chanukah. Where is the Chanukah battlefield found in the story of Yosef? Says Zecharyah, “V’orarti bonayich Tziyon al bonayich Yavan — I will awaken the children of Tziyon [a reference to Yosef] to overcome the children of Yavan [the Greeks].”
The Alshich points out that the word Tziyon can be broken into two. The first letter, tzadi, refers to Yosef Hatzaddik. The last three letters spell out Yavan. The word Tziyon alludes to the victory of Yosef over the Greeks.
Simply spoken, at the root of the Chanukah story is a war over the nature of beauty. This is not a war with armies and weapons; rather it is war of values, which on a metaphysical level is truly a war. The battles touch the epicenter of everything that is sacred to us.
Beauty is expressed in many forms — art, music, architecture, nature, and more. Zecharyah tells us to focus on the human body, the centerpiece of Hashem’s design.
Why does beauty create a war between Yosef and Yavan? What exactly makes something beautiful?
Important note: As with everything I write from what I gleaned from the Torah of my rebbi, this piece is based on my understanding and written in my style, and most certainly does not convey the full depths of what he wanted to teach. I would like to thank the family of Rav Moshe Shapira for approving the dissemination of his Torah in this format.
The Human Face
“Every [woman] compared to [the shine] of Sarah Imeinu’s face is like a monkey compared to a man. Sarah, in turn, compared to Chava, is like a monkey compared to a man” (Bava Basra 58a).
A monkey is just a shadow of a human being. The distance between it and a human is infinite. Similarly, Sarah Imeinu, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, was nothing but a shadow of what existed before the cheit of Adam and Chava. We remind ourselves of this infinite distance every Motzaei Shabbos when we say borei mei’orei ha’eish. The contrast of the bright shine created by the reflection of the Havdalah candle on our fingernails compared to the dullness of our skin, serves as a mashal to this distance. When Chava was formed by the hand of Hashem, she was perfect in every way.
Can one improve on perfection? In an astonishing revelation, the Gemara (Berachos 61a) affirms that one can. Before Hashem presented Chava to Adam, He “braided her hair.” Apparently styling hair adds a new dimension to beauty.
Fast-forward over 2,000 years and we find someone else adding to perfection by working on his hair. Rashi, quoting Bereishis Rabbah (84:7), tells us that Yosef Hatzaddik was mesakein b’sa’aro, fixing his hair. Rashi continues that Yosef did something else to add to perfection that was not necessary for Chava at creation — Yosef was memashmeish b’einav, he would groom his eyes.
At first glance, it would seem that Yosef was indulging in vanity. Rav Moshe explains that nothing could be further from the truth. Yosef understood that there was kedushah in yofi and that perfecting his personal beauty in the correct way would be a necessary step in bringing the whole world to perfection.
If one were to take a survey of what makes the human face beautiful in any society at any time in history, eyes would always come first. Hair, after it has been styled, comes second. Apparently, our search for understanding the beauty of the human face must begin with eyes and hair.
The Imahos were perfectly beautiful. The nature of their beauty was such that it inspired the most elevated and purest of thoughts. It therefore is surprising when the Torah tells us that “einei Leah rakos —the eyes of Leah were tender” (Vayeitzei 29:17), which made them unsightly.
This doesn’t mean, however, that they were not naturally beautiful. Rather, she was concerned that she was destined to marry the wicked Eisav, a knowledge that led her to continuously weep in prayer, permanently damaging her eyes. Hashem rewarded her with Dovid Hamelech, a descendant described as yefeh einayim — having beautiful eyes (I Shmuel 16:12).
We mentioned that Yosef is described as yefeh to’ar v’yefeh mareh, handsome in form and handsome in appearance. He received this four-word description of his beauty from his mother, Rachel Imeinu, who, like Yosef, is described as “yefas to’ar vifas mareh” (Vayeitzei 29:17).
Rashi unlocks the secret of these two terms, opening our eyes to the nature of true beauty: To’ar he calls tzuras hapartzuf, the shape of the face; mareh, he says, is ziv klaster, the shine of the visage.
Rav Moshe explains that the “shape of the face” is the first aspect of beauty. It is found in harmony, the pleasing way that everything fits together in a symmetrical concordant manner.
The second aspect is “the shine of the visage,” where the harmony brings you to an internal beauty. In simplistic terms, external beauty is incomplete if it does not take us beyond the surface. For example, the secular world recognizes that someone with beautiful character traits becomes externally more attractive.
Which part of the human face is naturally without harmony, but when worked on becomes beautiful? Hair. The Hebrew word for hair is sa’arah, which can also mean storm. A storm is perhaps a perfect metaphor for 100,000 hair follicles on a human scalp without a comb! But once the hairs are brushed, they can form an attractive harmony. Hashem “braids the hair” of Chava to raise the harmony of her beauty to a new level of perfection.
Which part of the human face naturally takes you to an inner dimension? The eyes. The Hebrew word for eyes is einayim, which is related to the word maayan, a deep well. The eyes reveal emotions to the point that we freely describe eyes as friendly, warm, sad, or cruel. They are so penetrating that we are aware when someone is staring at us from across the room. While the rest of the body goes through the aging process, eyes retain their sparkle into old age.
Yosef Wages War with Yavan
The Greeks are the masters of beauty in harmony. They could have been the masters of beauty in inner depth as well. Therein lies the evil of Yavan. They understood correctly that inner depth means the higher worlds of ruchniyus. They were fully aware that the ultimate beauty was the perfect synchronization of Heaven and Earth. In the human body, which is an olam katan, a microcosm of the universe, this beauty is expressed in the harmony of body and soul.
The Greeks, in their genius, postulated a pseudo-beauty that creates an illusion of inner depth. They wanted the viewer to “feel inspired” without any genuine connection to ruchniyus.
This mindset permeates every fiber of Western civilization. Chazal expose it for its true worth: It is the beauty of darkness.
Yosef Hatzaddik steps in and “wages war.” This is not a kind of war whose parameters we would find familiar, just like we cannot fathom the “war” when Yaakov Avinu struggled with the Angel of Eisav. But it is a bitter battle and is the seed of the future mesirus nefesh with which the Chashmonaim defended Tziyon, the source of all beauty. Yosef “fixes his hair,” perfecting his external harmony. He then “grooms his eyes,” harmonizing his external beauty with his neshamah. He has now created perfection in yofi.
It is the beauty of light.
One who is not aware that Yosef is the quintessential tzaddik might erroneously accuse Yosef of vanity and charge that his quest for beauty is rooted in the pseudo-beauty of Greece. Rav Moshe suggests that this was the mistake of Yosef’s brothers. After all, if Avraham had a Yishmael and Yitzchak had an Eisav, maybe Yaakov could have a Yavan. It was not until that dramatic reunion in parshas Vayigash that they fathomed the true kedushah of Yosef and realized how wrong they were. Yosef was the nemesis of Yavan.
Every Chanukah we gaze at the flickering candles and renew our appreciation of true beauty, realizing that it allows us to access the ruchniyus world beyond. We bring the world one step closer to a time when the darkness of Greece will be replaced forever and the world is wrapped in light with the harmonious beauty of Yosef and Yerushalayim.
Beauty in Nature
“How does one learn to love and fear Hashem? When one is misbonein (contemplates deeply) in His deeds and His great and wondrous creations and sees His endless and unfathomable wisdom…” (Rambam, Sefer Yesodei HaTorah 2:22)
So many of us enjoy the beauty of nature. The Rambam challenges us to go one step further and be misbonein in Hashem’s stunning world as a conduit to the first steps in learning to love and fear Him. When Rav Moshe traveled, he would look at the world around him with the Rambam’s depth.
Reb Ariel Sisro once accompanied Rav Moshe on a flight to Buenos Aires with a stopover in Istanbul. As the plane flew over the Sahara Desert, everyone in the cabin was sleeping while Rav Moshe stared out of the window at the endless sands, riveted. After what seemed like hours, Rav Moshe looked up. Reb Ariel asked him, what did the Rav see? He answered in awe that he was contemplating the world of tohu (emptiness and void) embodied by the vast midbar (desert).
On another trip to Buenos Aires, Rav Moshe endured the hardest trip of his life. What should have been a direct British Airways flight from London to Buenos Aires was canceled because of fog. He switched to an American Airlines flight that took him through Miami, which in turn was forced to land in Santiago de Chile because of adverse weather conditions in Argentina. He finally made it to Buenos Aires, but his suitcases did not. They contained important medicines that Rav Moshe needed. Everything seemed to be going wrong.
When he finally made it back to Yerushalayim and gave us our Friday shiur, he was still quite sick from the trip. However, he told us that his big nechamah (consolation) was flying from Santiago to Buenos Aires. He got to see the Andes up close, the second-highest mountain range after the Himalayas. The niflaos haBorei he had witnessed were something he would never forget.
Rav Moshe shared a story he heard from the grandson of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. Rav Chaim was on vacation at a resort in Latvia. His grandson watched him stand on the beach facing the water, gazing at the horizon. He asked him, “Zeide, what do you see?”
Rav Chaim answered, paraphrasing Bava Basra 74a, “Makom d’nashki Shamaya v’ara a’hadadi — I see the place where Heaven and Earth embrace.”
Rav Moshe commented that he was convinced that the profundity and depth of Reb Chaim’s comment were on a level that we could not possibly have grasped. Although Rav Moshe never explained his thoughts on Reb Chaim’s comment, it was clear to us that this story was very important to him.
One thing is certain. Rav Moshe expected us to give the same rigorous analysis to the world of nature that he expected us to give to the world of the beis medrash. Everywhere we go, with the correct hisbonenus, we can observe the harmony and deeper dimension of Hashem’s beautiful creations.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 619)
Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women and Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l.