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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Are looks important?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 24

King Shaul was depressed.  Failing to heed the word of Hashem in the battle against Agag and the Amalekites, he was told by the Prophet Shmuel that the kingdom would be taken away from him.  In an attempt to cheer up, he hired a harpist, one young David, the son of Yishai.  David is described by the Tanach as skilled musician, a man of valour, a man of principle and intelligence, and a handsome man, guided by Heaven. 

It makes sense that David would have been a skilled musician – that’s why he got the job!  But what difference did his intelligence or looks make to the position?

Mishnah: One may not plant a tree within a twenty-five cubit radius of a city.
Gemara: What is the reason?  Ulla taught: Due to the aesthetic impact on the city.

Some people think of Judaism as a ‘spiritual’ religion.  It’s all about the heavenly realms and the less we engage with this world, the better.  They imagine that this world is an impediment to our relationship with the Almighty and the more we learn to disconnect from the world around us, the stronger Yidden we become.

Here’s the truth: in contrast with most other religions, Judaism is not ascetic and other-worldly.  Hashem created this world as the ultimate expression of His greatness.  That’s why unique to our belief system is the understanding that we will eventually be resurrected back into our bodies and live life again on this earth!

Part and parcel of that belief in the primacy of this physical world is the knowledge that Hashem wants us to enjoy this world.  As long as we are utilizing the pleasures of this world for spiritual ends, we are enjoined to make the most of the experience!  And so the Mishnah teaches us not just about kosher, Shabbos, and all the other ‘ritual’ laws, but about environmental beauty too! 

When we imagine laws of trees, we probably expect to learn about the perils of planting a tree near the city limits, because you might break off a branch on Shabbos.  Or because you might graft two saplings together.  Or because you might neglect to offer the correct tithes.  But none of those are motivating the Mishnah.  Ulla explains that it’s simply about the aesthetic quality of the city as people enter!

We do not shun the beauty of this planet, this world is the handiwork of Hashem!  When questioned why he was vacationing in the Alps, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch famously responded, “When I reach heaven, the Almighty will ask, ‘Nu, Shamshon, what did you think of My beautiful Alps?’  How will I respond if I was too busy to bother noticing the wonders of the Creator?”

And that’s why the Tanach describes David as handsome, amongst all his other qualities.  He’s certainly not the first – we already knew that Sarah was beautiful, as were Rachel and Yosef.  There were probably many more; the Torah delineated beauty as one of the qualities of each of these characters simply because it was pertinent to their respective stories.  What’s important to note is that physical beauty is not dismissed by the Torah; it’s another impressive quality a person may be blessed with.  And Shaul looked for the most outstanding musician, well-endowed in all areas, to be present in his court.

Does that mean that if one is not the most handsome, Hashem has withheld blessing from them?  Of course not.  It’s like material wealth: the Talmud lists wealth as a Divine blessing – indeed our Sages explain that wealthy people are deserving of honor!  And yet, while many of the Talmudic greats were wealthy, many were extremely impoverished.  Likewise, physical beauty is but one quality among many that is a blessing from Heaven, and should not be minimized or taken for granted.

The message of our Mishnah is that while physical beauty is important, it’s not an absolute.  It’s not a case of ‘either you’ve got it or you don’t.’  Much of physical beauty has to do with presentation.  Sure, trees are beautiful, but if you plant them in the wrong place, they’ll be an eyesore.  Likewise, when it comes to ourselves, Heaven grants us a certain starting point, but beyond that, it’s up to us.

The Talmud teaches that a talmid chacham – one committed to Torah – may not leave the house with a stain on their shirt.  When you represent Torah, you need to be as presentable as possible.  That means taking care of your physical health, looking neat and tidy, and dressing like you’re an ambassador of the King of Kings!

When you wear your commitment to Torah and mitzvos on your sleeve, your sleeves need to be well-pressed.  As a walking-talking earthly ambassador of Heaven, you carry a great weight on your shoulders.  When people see you (and first impressions count!), they need to feel drawn to the heavenly mission you represent.  May you embody and champion Heaven inside and out! 

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