The seduction of beauty
Part of the traditional Friday night service is to sing the verses of Eshet Hayil (A Woman of Valor) from the book of Proverbs. Toward the end, we sing the line “Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory; it is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised.” Although it is inherently true – beauty is indeed illusory and temporary – we still put a tremendous premium on beauty and beautiful people. Yet, as we will see, the Torah understands the seduction of beauty but also the danger that lies within both for the beautiful person and for those around him or her. There are not many people described as beautiful in the Tanach. A cursory summary reveals that in each story where someone is described as beautiful, it is an element that plays a central role in the plot line.
This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, presents one of the many stories in Genesis dealing with the beauty of a woman and the resulting danger. Rebekah, as with Sarah twice before her, finds herself in danger of being taken by the reigning monarch because of her beauty. In the Sarah stories, Sarah is actually taken, once by Pharaoh and the second time by Abimelech. In both stories, God intervenes and Sarah is released. Isaac, who seems fated to repeat certain aspects of his father’s life, ends up in Gerar and in that period, his beautiful wife is in danger, too. However, Rebekah fares slightly better. Upon looking out of his window, Abimelech sees Isaac being intimate with Rebekah. Realizing that Rebekah is not Isaac’s sister, Abimelech then orders the men of the town to leave Rebekah and Isaac alone.
One of the most interesting Rebekah scenes in last week’s portion, Hayei Sarah, is when the young beautiful virginal Rebekah veils herself before meeting her betrothed. Why would she hide her beauty? While there are several possible readings, it seems to me that she does not want her beauty to be the medium through which she meets Isaac. She is used to being admired and assessed for her beauty. All beautiful women are.
In this relationship, she wants to be recognized for who she is internally and thus covers the external, which will only distract. The Torah suggests that beauty is complex – bringing with it challenges and dangers to both the bearers of beauty and those around them. The Torah tells us that Isaac brings her into his mother’s tent, loves her and is comforted by her in that order. There is no mention of her beauty, which suggests that, indeed, the relationship began on a deeper, more personal level.
Next week’s portion relates the story of the even more beautiful Rachel, who is not veiled when she unexpectedly meets Jacob. His response to his exquisitely beautiful cousin is to kiss her and burst into tears. The effect her beauty has on Jacob causes an unseemly display of affection, and we are told of his love for Rachel three times. This will affect the family dynamic forever after in complex and ultimately toxic ways. God closes Rachel’s womb and opens the womb of the less attractive and unloved Leah. Beautiful people do not always get what they want, the Torah suggests, and Rachel’s outburst to Jacob, “Give me children or I will die,” suggests that she is a woman not used to being denied her desires.
The beauty bias is not limited only to women: Joseph, the oldest son of Rachel, is an usually beautiful young man, like his mother, who is, not surprisingly, his father’s favorite, perhaps because of the resemblance. Yet Joseph’s beauty puts him in danger – from his brothers’ jealousy, from Potiphar’s wife, and from his own sense of entitlement. It seems to me that only when Joseph begins to use his other talents and ultimately channel his beauty toward a greater good does the plot change. At that point he is he able to enter Pharaoh’s court, save Egypt and his family, and forgive his brothers.
A similar plot line plays out even more obviously in the Book of Esther, where glittering harems and beautiful women are a necessary part of the backdrop. Vashti stands out as a beautiful woman who refuses to be objectified. Esther has to learn to use her beauty, as did Joseph, for something more than her personal gain. She, too, finds favor with all who see her, but is in danger of becoming a passive object, embalmed in the harem. She ultimately finds her own voice and emerges as a heroine for all time.
Some people are blessed with physical beauty, and others aren’t. It is a characteristic that has the potential to wield influence on others for good, but there is also the potential for abuse of that power by the person themselves and by others interacting with them. The Torah’s multi-layered, nuanced and complex look at how beauty seduces, influences and affects us, but bears with it a burden of its own is certainly relevant in today’s world. Women (and men) of valor must take care that the fear of God guides them in their interactions with one another, in order to prevent the abuse of beauty or power. ■
The Torah suggests that beauty is complex – bringing with it challenges and dangers both to the bearers of beauty and those around them
ISAAC’S SERVANT tying a bracelet on Rebekah’s arm in this 1775 work by Anglo-American history painter Benjamin West.