Rabbi David Walk
The world loves beauty. There is no shortage of beauty contests, and they still draw an audience. Many TV shows are just variations on beauty contests, whether for bachelors or bachelorettes. The cosmetic industry had sales of over 170 billion last year, so, beauty is indeed big business. What is the appeal of beauty? Is it healthy? And, most importantly, what is Judaism's view on the subject? This is, of course, a great time to investigate the issue, because Esther was the first Jewish beauty pageant winner, sort of the Bess Meyerson of her age (if you're too young to know, go Goolge her). Clearly, beauty is an issue in the book of Esther, and we do know that there is a concept of beauty within our mitzvoth performance. We must find a beautiful etrog for Sukkot; the Holy Temple was praised for its beauty, and the Land of Israel is said to have ninety percent of the world's beauty. However, usually the word used for the spiritual quest for beauty is hidur, while the word used for a beautiful woman is yafa. Does that make a difference? We'll try to find a way of dealing with these issues, and maybe find a definition for beauty that might even include me (fat chance).
First of all, I must mention the negative team. I think that based on the famous verse at the end of Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valor, recited by many on Friday night), many denigrate beauty. Here's the verse: Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who reveres the Lord, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:30). The Hebrew word I translated as vain is hevel, and could also be rendered fleeting. The relatively authoritative Aramaic translation is sheker or false. All this is pretty negative on the beauty front. The Aramaic translation in Esther for her beauty is yakar or precious. That's trying to avoid the subject. There's also a famous Midrash which states that she wasn't beautiful at all, but was green (maybe a play on the Aramaic word for precious, whose letters when mixed means green) and had a tail. Now there's a tale. The purpose of that Midrash is to say that her success had nothing to with her beauty, but was the miraculous manipulation of God. God made her find favor and look beautiful in the eyes of others, even though she was really the ugliest girl in town (sort of like Lola from Damn Yankees, just substitute Shushan for Providence, RI, but Ray Walston didn't play God).
Be that as it may, that's not the literal meaning of our text. The text states clearly that she was the prettiest girl in town and was the homecoming queen. Here's the verse: This man had a very beautiful and lovely young cousin, Hadassah, who was also called Esther. When her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her into his family and raised her as his own daughter (Esther 2:7). In other words, unless she wore a brown paper bag on her head everyone knew that she was gorgeous. But she wasn't alone. The Talmud tells us there were four truly beautiful women in history (besides the lovely women reading this article, of course, Megilla 15a). I believe that this statement means that their beauty was so surpassing that any measure of beauty would include them, plus, they did something amazing with this beauty. Beauty without purpose and accomplishment is, somehow, a lesser category of beauty. They were Sarah ( Now it came to pass when he drew near to come to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, Behold now I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance (Genesis 12:11), Rachav (who used her beauty, in her professional capacity to ascertain the mood of the Canaanites for our benefit), Abigail ( And the man's name was Nabal, and his wife's name was Abigail. And the woman was of good sense and of beautiful form, I Samuel 25:3), and, of course, Esther. Why were the Rabbi's discussing the beauty of these women, when elsewhere they denigrate people for discussing the relative beauty of women (Megila 12b)? The point is what they did with their beauty for the betterment of the nation.
I think that the underlying point is that everyone should use what ever God given talents and attributes they have for good. This is important. Everyone has something to contribute to the common good. The trick is to find it. I remember a few young men during my time in yeshiva who came from wealthy families. A number of them asked Rabbi Soloveitchik what they should do with their lives, go into Jewish education or the family business. I think without exception he advised them to go into the prosperous family enterprise. We made light of it at the time, but I think that the Rav believed that they were positioned to help Judaism in ways they couldn't equal in the classroom, whether to support Torah institutions or use their influence for the betterment of the community. A person with physical beauty must do the same thing: find a method for using that trait to serve others in a positive way. Then the yafa becomes hidur, in the service of God.
Esther's beauty was the key that opened that dreadful gate behind which the Jews faced doom. Mordechai apparently understood this from the beginning. Normally we believe that the proper behavior for our women is modesty, but Mordechai somehow understood the precarious state of the Jews in this empire run by an impulsive ruler like Achashveirosh. Hiding beauty from him could be disastrous, as the also beautiful Vashti found out. Allowing, perhaps encouraging, Esther to show off this outstanding gift was initially to save her from Vashti's fate.
In the end her actions saved the entire nation. With Mordechai's prompting she found out that her looks could become an effective weapon against that monster Haman. Because at the end of the day as Carl Denham said: Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.
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