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Material Reward, Spiritual Beauty

Nearly all young men place great importance on physical beauty. Yet, one does not marry a photo, one marries a human being with thoughts and feelings. So, why then is beauty so important?
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Asher Ishaayahu Ben Rivka
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Reward for Mitzvoth
Why does the Torah mention only the material reward which is given to one who upholds the commandments; why is the spiritual reward - a reward which awaits the deserving in the World to Come - only hinted at? Many answers have been given to this famous question, and all of them are good and correct. Yet, the simplest and most basic answer of all is the one given by Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra in his classic Torah commentary (see Deuteronomy 32:39). If the Torah had revealed the spiritual reward that awaits a person in the World to Come, explains Ibn Ezra, only a select few would be able to grasp its significance. As a result, few would exert themselves to fulfill the Mitzvoth. The value of earthly reward, though, can be appreciated by all.

Another explanation is that man's eventual spiritual reward is so obvious that it need not be mentioned outright by the Torah. It is obvious that the soul is refined through the fulfillment of commandments. The real novelty is that the perfection which comes through the fulfillment of the Mitzvoth is not limited to the World to Come - it is of an all-encompassing nature, finding expression even in the physical bounty and joy of this world (see Ramban on Exodus 6:2; Leviticus 26:11).

Having touched upon the relation between the physical and spiritual, let us go a step further and view this relationship in light of a moving question that was put to me.

The Question of Beauty
Question: I am a twenty-seven year old single woman, and I have many single girl friends like myself. We are all victims of the same painful phenomenon. Nearly all young men place great importance on physical beauty. Yet, one does not marry a photo, one marries a human being with thoughts and feelings. So why then is beauty so important? One of my friends who has some experience in match-making tells me that if a man is not told in advance that his intended match is pretty, or that she at least has "a lot of charm," he will usually not agree to meet with her. Why should man's nature be such? We women are not getting any younger or any more attractive.

Answer: If a man's only incentive in marrying was to fulfill a Torah commandment, it is possible that only one in a thousand would actually wed. The rest would find excuses in order to exempt themselves from this obligation. Similarly, were the food that God created for us gray colored and repulsive, even if it contained all of the essential vitamins, many people would become sick and even die of malnutrition.

Outer appearance and initial attraction constitute the gate through which couples enter into everlasting union. If, after this initial stage, a couple continues to build its relationship according to the guidance of the Torah, observing the laws of modesty regarding strangers and showing increased love for one another, its relationship will flourish. The more their wisdom and sensitivity grow, the more the bond between them is strengthened. If this route is taken, the pair's love will grow endlessly stronger, despite aging and all that comes with it.

When we one day merit the complete Redemption and the Resurrection of the Dead, the physical body will accurately reflect the state of the soul; the more that the soul is refined, the more beautiful the body will become. When this happens the elderly will be more beautiful than the young. The Sages teach that the Matriarchs possessed this sort of beauty, as did Moses whose "cheeks never sank."

Beauty which Reflects Essence
Question: Should not young men be taught that outer beauty is not all that counts?
Answer: Yes, young men should be taught this lesson. All the same, it is not possible to do away with man's appreciation for beauty, for this is part of his nature. Furthermore, such appreciation is good, for it allows marriage to be accompanied by a feeling of joy.

The Talmud relates a story about a certain individual whose family pressured him to marry one of his own relatives. Yet, because she was unattractive he jumped up and vowed that he would never marry her. She approached Rabbi Yishmael, who took her in and saw to it that she be adorned and beautified. After she had been fittingly made up, Rabbi Yishmael asked the young man if this was the one that he had sworn not to marry. He answered, "No, for now I find her very attractive." At that moment Rabbi Yishmael lifted up his voice and cried, "Indeed, all Daughters of Israel are beautiful, only that poverty renders them unattractive." The Rabbi performed the same favor for a number of other young women. When He passed away, the women lamented, saying, "Daughters of Israel, cry over the loss of Rabbi Yishmael!" (Nedarim, 61).

Now, it would have been possible to nullify the young man's vow by other means, for example, by convincing him that beauty is not the most important factor when choosing a bride. Were the Rabbi able to convince him of this, it would not have difficult to find a loophole for nullifying the young man's vow. Rabbi Yishmael, though, knew better than to take this path. He understood that it was preferable for the young woman to beautify herself in the eyes of her prospective groom so that he marry her joyfully.

The Torah is realistic. Rather than go against man's nature, it chooses to guide and direct it. True, it must be stressed that admirable character traits are more important than beauty; on the other hand, it is impossible to force a man to marry a woman that he does not find attractive.
We are not interested in going against nature, for the Almighty has filled creation with many layers of significance. Beauty merely reflects inner vitality, or character, which resides beneath the surface of physical appearances. Shallow people run after outer appearance and ignore other, more important characteristics; those who possess greater insight delve deeper, in order to uncover those underlying characteristics which represent, for them, perfect beauty.

Beauty is Subjective
Every person possesses his or her own unique beauty, as Rabbi Yishmael teaches us: "Indeed, all Daughters of Israel are beautiful." When, though, the age of marriage is put off, it becomes difficult to perceive this unique beauty. The optimum vitality so characteristic of youth decreases.

One who is familiar with reality, knows that younger men are more open and more flexible and therefore think that most of the girls they go out with are attractive. It occasionally happens that on the first date a young woman does not appear pretty in the eyes of the young man, yet, as they get to know one another the man discovers her true beauty, to the point where he does not even understand how he could ever have thought that she was not beautiful.

More matured men, though, (from about the age of twenty-five) consider only about half of the women they date attractive; the "elderly" (from about twenty-eight) generally consider only a minority of the women they meet with beautiful. It is difficult for them to discern the subjective beauty that exists in every woman. It is possible to give lectures on "grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain" (Proverbs 31:30). This approach is somewhat effective. Yet, reality as a whole does not change. This is the reason that it is difficult for older people to marry. Even when they do marry, they often feel that they had no choice but to compromise for somebody who was not exactly to their liking.

Because of its great importance - according to our Sages God himself is busy arranging matches - I hope to return to this issue again in the future.
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