Material Reward, Spiritual Beauty

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 photograph; 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 them from this
obligation. Similarly, if the food that God created for us was
gray-colored and repulsive, even if it contained all 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 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 who’s “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 Ishmael, who took her in and saw to it that she be
adorned and beautified. After she had been fittingly made up, Rabbi
Ishmael asked the young man if this was the woman that he had sworn
not to marry. He answered, “No, for now I find her very attractive.”
At that moment Rabbi Ishmael 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 Ishmael!” (Tractate
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 been difficult to find a
loophole for nullifying the young man’s vow. Rabbi Ishmael, 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 marries 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 Ishmael
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.

In truth, younger men are more open and more flexible and therefore
think that most of the girls they go out with are attractive. Often,
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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