Parshas Noach (5774)
Who would you say are the four most beautiful women who ever lived?
Before you start naming famous Hollywood actresses, let me tell you what our Sages have to say about this:
The Talmud in Megillah 15a teaches that the four most beautiful women in history were Sarah (our forefather Abraham’s wife and one of the four Matriarchs of the Jewish people), Rachav (she saved the spies whom Joshua had sent into Jericho, and eventually converted to Judaism and married him – see the Book of Joshua Chapter 2), Avigayil (former wife of Naval, she later married King David – see the Book of Samuel 1 Chapter 25), and Esther (famed heroine of the Purim story). Others, who contend that she wasn’t truly pretty but just looked that way, substitute the wicked Queen Vashti for Esther.
So we understand that Sarah – the first Jewish woman in history and the role model for all Jewish women to follow – was not only a spiritually great person, but was also drop-dead gorgeous.
Even Sarah’s name indicates that she was both very holy and very pretty at the same time. At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Noach, the offspring of Abraham’s father Terach are listed (see Genesis 11:27). The Torah mentions there that Abraham married his niece Sarai (this was before G-d changed her name to Sarah), who was also known as Yiskah.
Rashi, the preeminent Bible commentator, explains that her real name was Sarai, but she was called Yiskah (which comes from the Hebrew root sachah, meaning “to see” or “to gaze”) because she ‘saw’ things with the Holy Spirit, i.e. with Divine inspiration, and because all would ‘gaze’ at her beauty.
The question which must be on your mind when reading this is how is it possible for someone to be one of the four most beautiful women who ever lived, with everyone gazing at her beauty, and at the same time, be so holy that she can see things with Divine inspiration, a spiritual level only attained by the greatest prophets in our history?
After all, in our experience we find that extreme beauty often corrupts the one who is ‘blessed’ with it, and turns him/her into a self-absorbed person whom nobody wants to be around. It is incredibly rare to find a person who is unusually beautiful but doesn’t know it – and once they know it, it almost always changes them for the worst.
So how then did our matriarch Sarah manage to transcend the temptations of the physical world and become spiritually great even as she was faced with the challenge of being stared at constantly for her incredible beauty? What was Sarah’s secret, and what can we learn from her to help ourselves stay spiritually elevated when we are living in such a material, beauty-driven world?
I believe the answer to this question can be found in the Eishes Chayil (“Woman of Valor”) prayer that is customarily sung by Jewish husbands to their wives on Friday evenings, after returning from synagogue and singing Shalom Aleichem, and before sitting down to the Shabbos evening meal. This beautiful hymn is taken from the last chapter of King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs (Chapter 31), and, according to the Midrash, was originally composed by our forefather Abraham as a eulogy for his wife Sarah.
The final verse of the Eishes Chayil prayer reads as follows: “Grace is false and beauty is vain, a G-d-fearing woman – she should be praised”.
On a simple level, the meaning of the verse is that since grace and beauty are G-d-given, and may well only be transitory; they do not reflect the character of a person. Only fear of G-d and spiritual thoughtfulness are true signs of a woman’s worth and are thus worthy of praise.
However, many commentators explain the verse differently: A G-d-fearing woman should be praised …. for her grace and her beauty. In other words, while beauty alone often corrupts the one who possesses it, when kept in perspective and anchored with a healthy dose of spiritual sensitivity and an awareness of G-d, it can be a wonderful asset.
Sarah, the “First Lady” of Judaism, taught us all through her living example, how to use all that G-d gave us – including grace and beauty – in the proper way, so that we don’t become corrupted and held back from attaining the loftiest heights of spirituality. From Sarah can Jewish women learn how to be incredibly beautiful – and incredibly spiritual – at the same time.