The day had finally come. For months, I had been trying to meet this famous sage, renowned not only for his wisdom, but for his beautiful, majestic physical appearance. I had heard the stories, but I wanted to experience it for myself. After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to get an appointment.
Upon arriving at the sage’s house, I could barely contain my excitement. This was it; I was finally here. I knocked and patiently waited for someone to answer. A moment later, the door opened, and standing in front of me was the most hideous individual I had ever seen.
Not to worry, I thought to myself. This must be his attendant. But after the man introduced himself as the sage, my heart sank. Oh, well, I thought. I should have known that he could never live up to the stories. This is what happens when you have unrealistic expectations. I considered leaving, but after coming all this way, I decided to continue as planned, spending the day with this sage.
As the day went on, it became clear that while the sage may not have been physically beautiful, he sure was a wonderful human being. He spoke with such compassion, and his kind eyes revealed tremendous depth. He treated me like a treasured friend, despite having just met me. He showed genuine interest in me; he wanted to learn my story and hear my questions. We discussed ideas, shared our experiences, and enjoyed a meaningful afternoon together. As we walked through his garden, I saw the reverence and care that he showed all forms of life, even the animals and insects. He shared his philosophy with me, but never judged me or made me feel uncomfortable.
After a long day together, he brought me back inside, and excused himself for a moment. As I sat there thinking, I finally realized the lesson I was supposed to learn. Beauty is not about the physical; it’s about how we live our lives, how we choose to see the world. It’s the values we embody, the character traits we develop. I was still reflecting on this when I heard the sage reenter the room. I turned my head to face him and almost passed out. There, at the entrance of the room, stood the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I was overwhelmed with shock and confusion.
The sage sat down beside me and smiled. “You probably want an explanation. Every day, people come from near and far to witness my physical beauty. After several years of teaching, I found that when someone sees my face when first encountering me, they are not able to experience all the other dimensions of my persona and character. Physical beauty can be wonderful, but without emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beauty, it is merely a distraction. I therefore decided to take a new approach. Every morning, when I greet a new guest, I disguise myself as a hideous, grotesque individual. After disregarding my physical casing, they are able to spend the day focusing on all of my other characteristics, learning, growing, and enjoying themselves. At the end of the day, I take off the disguise and reveal my physical beauty, as well. But now, the physical beauty no longer hides everything that lies within me; it reflects it.
Yosef and Chanukah
Parshas MiKeitz and the story of Yosef always fall out around Chanukah. This is not coincidental; the commentators discuss Yosef’s connection to Chanukah at great length. An obvious connection between Yosef and the Greeks is their association with beauty. Yosef is the only male in the Torah who is referred to as “beautiful” (B’reishis 39:6), and the Greeks originate from Yefes, whose name literally means “beauty.” In a similar vein, the Gemara states that despite the general prohibition of translating the Torah into other languages, it is permissible to translate the Torah into Greek, due to the beauty of the language (Megillah 9b).
Additionally, in Parshas Noach, Noach blesses his two sons as follows: “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b’ohalei Sheim – Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell within the tents of Sheim” (B’reishis 9:27). Yefes is the ancestor of the Greeks, and Sheim is the ancestor of the Jews. This seemingly paints the Greeks as a positive force, as a beautiful nation, fitting to dwell within the framework and boundaries of Judaism. However, the Chanukah story and other incidents throughout Jewish history reveal a very negative and harmful relationship between the Jews and the Greeks. What, then, is the meaning behind the Torah’s positive portrayal of the Greeks, and what is the meaning behind their beauty?
In order to understand why both Yosef and the Greeks are referred to as beautiful, and the powerful connection between them, we must understand the spiritual concept of beauty in all of its depth. 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 inside.
The Chanukah Battle
The conception of beauty was a fundamental point of contention in the battle between the Jewish People and the Greeks. The Greeks did not believe in using the physical to reflect anything higher; they viewed physical beauty as an end unto itself. Their focus was solely on the external; to them, beauty was physical perfection, detached from anything deeper. The Greeks introduced the Olympic Games, competition that idolizes the physical body. For the Greeks, true godliness was physical and intellectual perfection, albeit completely detached from each other. The physical and intellectual were completely independent; mind and soul did not permeate the physical but remained distinct and separate.
This is why the Greeks come from Yefes, which means “beauty,” and why their language is referred to as beautiful. Ideally, the Greeks could have reflected true beauty, a perfect harmony and oneness between physical and spiritual beauty. This is the ideal that Noach hoped for when he said, “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b’ohalei Sheim – Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell within the tents of Sheim” (B’reishis 9:27). Ideally, the Greeks would have harmonized with the Jews, joining the physical with the spiritual. Instead, they chose to corrupt true beauty, disconnecting the spiritual from the physical and projecting the physical as an independent end in itself.
Yosef and Beauty
Yosef is connected to Chanukah because he represents the harmony between the physical and the spiritual; he successfully utilized the physical to reflect something higher. The Torah calls him “beautiful” because his physical body projected something infinitely deeper than itself. This is the profound meaning behind the name that Pharaoh gives Yosef, Tzafnas Paanei’ach, which means to “reveal the hidden” (B’reishis 41:43). A name reflects inner essence, and Yosef’s midah was true beauty – the ability to harmonize the physical with the spiritual, the hidden with the revealed. Yosef represents our victory over Greek ideology, the ability to hold on and stay true to a life of Torah, to see the physical as a reflection of something infinitely deeper than itself.
Yosef, Tziyon, and True Beauty
The Syrian-Greeks attacked Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), trying to disconnect us from the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple), the place where Hashem connects most intimately and deeply with our physical world. The place of the Beis HaMikdash is referred to as Tziyon, a unique, beautiful and distinguished place. The pasuk in T’hilim refers to Tziyon as the place of ultimate beauty: “MiTziyon michlal yofi – From Tziyon comes the embodiment of beauty” (T’hilim 50:2). The Gemara explains that all of the world’s beauty was given to Tziyon, and it gave a tenth of its portion (maaser) to the rest of the world (Kiddushin 49b).
Yavan represents external, surface beauty, while Tziyon represents true beauty. Yavan is comprised of the letters yud, vav, nun, while Tzion is comprised of those same three letters, along with a tzadi in front, the same root and shoresh of the word tzadik. Yosef is referred to as “Yosef HaTzadik,” because he places the tzadi in front of Yavan, turning surface beauty into Tziyon, true beauty. (While the common spelling of this letter is tzadi, there is a very old tradition of referring to this letter as “tzadik” as well; see Shabbos 104a. See also Magen David, letter tzadik. See also Osiyos d’Rabbi Akiva and Sefer HaBahir for more examples of the tzadi-tzadik connection.) Yosef represents the ability to shine inner, higher beauty through a physical medium. It is no coincidence that the gematria of Tziyon is 156, the same gematria as Yosef.
This is the hidden light of Chanukah, the light that illuminates the truth, helping us see that which lies beneath the surface. Beauty is much deeper than a description of how a person looks; it’s a way of life. A beautiful life is a life of oneness where we synthesize all the aspects of who we are; where our thoughts, words, and actions all reflect a higher purpose, a higher source, a higher reality. This is the beauty of Yosef; this is the light of Chanukah.
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.
 - In a deeper sense, the physical still does reveal spiritual truth, albeit in a less pure and clear fashion.