Matt was the happiest guy in the world. He had somehow found the most beautiful girl in the world, Jennie, and they were engaged, set to marry in just over a month. They had been set up by friends, and had hit it off from the start. Matt could never get over how beautiful Jennie was, how effortless her beauty came, and how proud he felt to walk around with her by his side. Sure, she was funny, smart, and kind, but wow was she beautiful. He had never thought he would find someone good enough for his high standards, so he thanked Hashem every day for sending Jennie into his life.
Then, the unthinkable happened. It started with a phone call. “It’s an emergency. I’m so sorry. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. She’s in the ICU.”
Matt got to the hospital as soon as he could. When he walked in, he couldn’t bear the sight. Jennie had been in a car accident. She would live, but her face had been torn apart in the crash, leaving her scarred and almost unrecognizable. Matt sat next to her for a few hours, comforting her. He then went outside for a breath of fresh air, and contemplated the most difficult question he had ever faced: What should he do? She looked horrible, ugly, repulsive! On the one hand, his gut instinct was to run. On the other hand, nobody wants to be that shallow guy who runs as soon as there’s an accident. What would people think? They would know that he had only been in it for the good looks, that as soon as those disappeared, so did he. “No,” he thought, “I’ll just have to figure this out.”
That night, Matt did some soul searching. He called, texted, and emailed every person he could think of, asking for their advice and guidance. Most tried to comfort and empathize, but finally, he received an email from an old rebbe of his, back in his yeshivah days. “Listen to this,” the email read, “and you may just find your answer.”
Attached to the email was a three-part audio series on love, marriage, and beauty. With no alternative option in sight, Matt began listening. The shiur series questioned the Western model of beauty and love, rejecting the notion of love at first sight. While physical beauty is wonderful, inner beauty, spiritual beauty, is infinitely more powerful. When building a marriage relationship, the goal is to build an inner connection, a soul connection, whereby the two partners constantly give to each other, communicate and build inner values together, and venture on a shared journey and mission in life.
Matt was blown away. He had never heard these ideas before, and began questioning his relationship with Jennie. Sure, they sometimes talked about life, their values, and overall direction, but they had never built a genuine and deep internal connection. Now that he was being honest with himself, Matt realized that he had been so fixated on Jennie’s external beauty that he had never put much effort into getting to truly know her – who she was, what she wanted in life, her struggles, her virtues and flaws, or even her hopes and dreams. At that very moment, Matt decided that he would spend the next few weeks trying to build this type of relationship, and after that, he would revisit his questions about marriage.
At first, it was awkward; Matt struggled to initiate genuine conversation, to ask real questions, to be vulnerable and honest. But slowly, things began to flow more easily. Matt and Jennie began opening up to each other with increasing ease and trust. Matt was surprised by how deep and thoughtful Jennie was, by how caring and empathetic she was towards his own values and dreams. While they used to spend their dates at entertaining events, requiring little conversation, they began to go on endless walks, spanning the course of seven to eight hours at a time. They began seeing each other with new eyes, understanding each other on levels unimaginably deeper than they ever thought possible. Jennie began to shine with a new beauty, one that her physical beauty had never fully captured. They started to grow together, learn together, and inspire each other. Matt decided right there and then that he would spend the rest of his life with Jennie. Her face was scarred and jarring, but she was the most beautiful person he had ever met.
A week later, Jennie got exciting news. The doctors were going to be able to fully heal her scar tissue, making her face as good as new. After the successful operation, Jennie came out looking as physically beautiful as she did on their first date. But by now, Matt had a completely new appreciation for the concept of beauty. True, physical beauty is wonderful, even essential to some extent. But true beauty – inner, spiritual beauty – is something that shines through and completely encapsulates outer beauty.
This heartwarming story might seem too much for the modern era. We are all drowning in Western culture, where physical beauty takes the front seat, and the only seat. But to fully understand the modern-day challenge of beauty, we must understand the depth of beauty. To do this, let us track the spiritual concept of beauty back to the creation of man, to before Adam HaRishon’s sin.
Before Adam sinned, he looked nothing like you or I do today. When we look at each other, all we see is flesh and bone, but if you looked at Adam before he sinned, he looked angelic, transcendent, luminescent. The Midrash says that he wore kasnas or, skin of light. In other words, when you looked at Adam, you didn’t see his body, you saw Adam himself – his neshamah, his soul. For example, when you look at a light bulb, all you see is light; only when you look very closely, can you just make out the surface of the bulb. The same was true regarding Adam: Only when you looked really closely could you just make out the surface of his physical body. His body was transparent, with the outside loyally reflecting his inner self. This is true beauty, where the inner and outer melt into a oneness, where the physical loyally and perfectly reflects the inner and spiritual, where the physical vessel serves as a medium to project something much deeper than itself. Beauty is the harmony and synthesis between different components, which results in something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
However, once Adam sinned, his entire body transformed, as well. The physical no longer revealed the spiritual, but hid it. Now, when we look at each other, we don’t see our true selves; all we see is a physical body instead. What was once light is now darkness. People can’t see your inner world, your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions; all they see is your external body. Now, in order to reveal yourself to other people, you need to use the physical to reveal the spiritual; only through your words, actions, facial expressions, and body language can people truly gain a glimpse of who you really are. The body used to be incandescent and reveal; now it only hides.
An ideal marriage consists of two people who are endlessly breaking down the barriers and walls between them, creating deeper and deeper levels of existential and spiritual connection and oneness. Physical connection is part of a spiritual relationship, and when done correctly, becomes uplifted to something transcendent.
In this week’s parshah, Parshas Ki Seitzei, the Torah refers to an illicit relationship as gilui arayos, literally translated as “revealing your nakedness.” What does this mean? Why does the Torah refer to a forbidden relationship as revealing one’s nakedness?
While a true marriage relationship creates a transcendent bond, an animalistic relationship consists only of a purely physical, surface connection, one that lacks anything deeper. It has no purpose, no direction, nothing transcendent. When one violates gilui arayos, he or she is showing that the intimate realm is nothing more than a means for physical pleasure. In doing so, one reveals that he or she is merely an animal, a physical being, lacking connection to something higher and spiritual. Thus, by entering into an illicit relationship, individuals reveal that they view themselves as merely physical. This is as if they are saying that their bodies are all that they are. If so, then by revealing their bodies to the world, they are revealing their “nakedness,” that they are merely hunks of flesh, nothing more. They have self-identified as animals, bodies that are unable to reflect their neshamos, who do not wish to use their bodies to reflect their inner higher selves. This is the ultimate shame, which is why the Torah repeatedly refers to gilui arayos as an act of shame.
The Mysterious Trio
With this in mind, we can understand the strange progression of topics in this week’s parshah. The parshah begins with the discussion of eishes y’fas to’ar (D’varim 20:10), the enigmatic halachah that allows the marriage between a Jewish soldier and a captive woman of war. The Torah then discusses the topic of the “hated wife” (D’varim 21:15). Finally, the Torah discusses the case of a bein sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son (D’varim 21:18). What is the deeper meaning behind this progression, and what is the connection between these three topics?
A Downward Cascade
The answer is quite striking: This is a three-step process, one that the Torah is warning us against. When one marries a y’fas to’ar, he does so out of passion and lust. A man at war is unstable, perhaps more inclined to give in to his animalistic urges. His desire to marry this captive of war is almost guaranteed to be rooted in physical desire, lacking any spiritual underpinning. As such, the Torah prescribes many obstacles and barriers between the soldier’s original inclination and his ultimate permission to act on that desire. In addition to having her shave her head and making him wait a prolonged period of time, the Torah requires many other such conditions be fulfilled in order to cool his flame of passion and help him think clearly. However, if he still follows through, he is permitted to marry her.
However, this will likely lead to a very unstable and unspiritual marriage. Often, when a relationship is so physically founded, it leads to growing apart, fundamental disagreements in values and world outlook, and heated arguments. This is why the Torah places the discussion of the “hated wife” right after the topic of eishes y’fas to’ar. It is this type of foundation that leads to such an unstable marriage.
And it is no surprise that the topic of bein sorer u’moreh is soon to follow. Chazal discuss the various halachos of the bein sorer u’moreh, but there are two things that become especially apparent. First, it is basically impossible for a child of this nature to ever exist. Second, to qualify as a bein sorer u’moreh, the child would have to show the most barbaric and animalistic character traits known to man. The pattern is clear: An animalistic marriage leads to an unstable and unspiritual relationship. Such a relationship creates an unstable home and is the only imaginable means through which a bein sorer u’moreh can come into this world. These are not three disconnected discussions; this is a chain reaction.
Perhaps this is why the very next topic mentioned in the Torah is the halachah of burial (D’varim 21:22). The Torah tells us that if a man is hanged, he must be buried that day, and must not be left hanging. The reason is as follows: Even though he acted immorally, man was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of Hashem. In other words, no matter how low man gets, no matter how animalistic he behaves, no matter how far he sways and loses direction, his root will always remain spiritual and Godly. No matter how much we refuse to reflect our true and higher selves, it will always remain our truest and deepest identity.
This is the most powerful message of life. There are always two levels of reality: the surface level and the deeper, spiritual level. The surface is meant to reflect the spiritual, reveal it, and emanate its truth and beauty. But often we struggle, we forget, we get caught up in the deception that the surface is all that there is. But even when we fail, even when we fall, there is always hope, there is always a path back to our true selves. This is the message of Elul, this is the message of life: to strive to see more, feel more, learn more, become more. May we all be inspired to not only see past the surface, but to then reveal that truth through the surface, to live holistic lives of truth, spiritual beauty, and true oneness.