In a world where beauty is often misunderstood, it’s important to understand the deep spiritual nature and purpose of this powerful and fundamental concept. To do so, let us trace the spiritual concept of beauty back to the creation of man, before Adam HaRishon’s sin.
Before Adam sinned, he looked nothing like you or I do today. When we look at one another, all we see is flesh and bone, but if you looked at Adam before he sinned, his appearance was angelic, transcendent, luminescent. The Midrash says that he wore kosnos or (skin of light). When you looked at Adam, you didn’t see his body but saw Adam himself, i.e., his neshamah. When you look at a light bulb, all you see is radiant luminescence; only if you look very closely can you just make out the surface of the bulb. The same was true regarding Adam; he was luminescent. Only if you looked very closely could you just make out his physical body. His body was transparent, with the outside loyally and fully reflecting his inner self. This is true beauty, where the inner and outer melt into a oneness, where the physical perfectly reflects the inner spirituality – where the physical projects something much deeper than itself. Beauty is the harmony and synthesis of different components, resulting in something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
When Adam sinned, however, the world fell, and Adam’s body fell, as well. The physical no longer revealed the spiritual; it now hid it instead. Now, when we look at each other, we don’t see our true selves; all we see is a physical body. What was once light is now darkness. People can’t see your inner world, your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions, or your soul; all they see is your external body. Now, in order to reveal yourself to other people, you must actively use the physical to reveal the spiritual. Only through your words, actions, facial expressions, and body language can people gain a glimpse into who you truly are. The body used to be incandescent and reveal, but now it only hides. It is up to us to reveal what lies ahead.
After the sin of Adam HaRishon, genuine beauty became elusive, found only in a select few individuals. Sarah Imeinu was one of the few who achieved this lofty feat. We know that Sarah was physically beautiful, and that her beauty was not just of an ethereal, spiritual nature. When Sarah and Avraham descended to Mitzrayim (Egypt), the Mitzrim (Egyptians), and even Pharaoh himself, desired her (Rashi, B’reishis 23:1). The Egyptians were steeped in immorality, interested only in beauty that ran skin deep. However, we know that Sarah Imeinu was immensely spiritual as well, and that she reached the loftiest of spiritual levels (Rashi, B’reishis 23:1).
At the end of Parshas Noach, Rashi explains that one of Sarah’s other names was Yiskah (B’reishis 11:29). A name always reflects essence, so we must ponder the meaning of this name and what it reveals about Sarah Imeinu. “Yiskah” means transparent, and Sarah’s true beauty lay in her transparency. Her inner beauty completely permeated and was loyally reflected through her physical body. Genuine beauty is embodied in transparency, where the physical body reflects the inner, spiritual beauty, something infinitely greater than anything external. True beauty is oneness, where the physical and spiritual melt into a oneness; where the physical doesn’t hide the inner self but reveals it.
This is why the shoresh (root) of the word “Yiskah” is also the shoresh of the word “s’chach,” the roof of the sukkah. According to halachah (Jewish law), the s’chach is the most important (ikar) part of the sukkah, which is why “s’chach” shares the same shoresh as “sukkah.” What is the connection between transparency and s’chach? The answer lies in one of the deepest themes of Sukkos. Sukkos is about seeing past the illusion of independent self-security, recognizing that Hashem is our true source of protection. This is why we leave our sturdy homes and enter a diras arai, a temporary dwelling place. We show that our faith and trust lie in Hashem, not our “safe” homes. While on the surface, our security and safety seem to come only from our own efforts and hishtadlus, when we look past the surface, we recognize that everything comes from Hashem. This is why the s’chach is the primary (ikar) part of the sukkah; it trains us to see past the surface. The s’chach must be transparent, allowing us to see the stars at night. It must also be loose enough to allow some sunlight and rain to enter the sukkah. Only a transparent surface allows us to truly see what lies beyond it.
From Light to Skin
The Midrash explains that, originally, Adam wore kosnos or (spelled with an alef) – garments of light (Torah T’mimah, B’reishis 3:21). After he sinned, Hashem clothed him in kosnos or (spelled with an ayin) – garments of skin (B’reishis 3:21). When spelled with an alef, or is light; when spelled with an ayin, or is a hide, the skin of an animal. What is the deeper meaning behind this?
Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains the meaning behind the descriptions of Adam’s clothing according to the idea we just developed. Originally, Adam’s body was transparent, emanating the light of his soul. Light reveals, and his original skin revealed his true, inner self. Once he sinned, however, his body no longer revealed the spiritual, but only its physical surface. The word or, when spelled with an ayin, means animal hide. This skin, like its English translation, hides the soul, the inner self.
The letter alef is the first letter of the alef-beis. It is the letter of oneness, representing transcendence, spirituality, and Hashem, our ultimate Source and root. The letter ayin represents the physical, limited expression of the alef. This is why the word “alef” means to elevate or lift to a higher spiritual dimension, while ayin means eye. The eye, naturally, sees only the physical; however, it has the potential to see past the physical surface of reality, to source itself back to the original light of the alef. That is why the word ayin is also connected to the word “maayan” (a wellspring). A wellspring has a limiting surface. Through effort, though, one can peer beneath that surface, revealing something endlessly deep behind it. By delving into the depths of the wellspring, one can draw forth water – the source of life (See B’reishis 26:19). Ayin therefore reflects the concept of reaching that which is hidden, higher, and transcendent.
However, the ayin also has the potential to corrupt, causing us to see nothing more than the physical surface without sourcing our physical sight back to any higher source. This is why the Hebrew word iveir, spelled the same way as the word or, means “blind.” One who sees only the physical surface is blind to the truth; one who sees only the surface does not see at all. This is the unique challenge of sight. We can use it to see the physical as an expression of the spiritual, or we can become trapped by the lure of the surface, ignoring its higher root. In our next article, we will develop this idea further and understand the deeper spiritual purpose of clothing.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.