Thursday, November 24, 2016

Beautifully Challenged

Sarah, at age twenty, was as beautiful as a seven year old (Rashi Breishis 23:1). Three questions:
Why should the Torah praise Sarah's beauty? Does beauty occupy a place of prominence in Jewish thought? "Grace is false, and beauty vain; a woman who fears Hashem, she should be praised (Mishlei 31:30)!"
Even were we to assume that beauty is laudable, it is still a divine gift. Regarding genuine, intrinsic beauty, either you've got it, or you don't. Consequently, why should Sarah be commended for what Hashem gave her in the first place?
Is the beauty of a seven-year-old truly considered admirable? How many young women would consider this a complement?

The Gemara (Megillah 14a) teaches that Sarah had another name, Yiskah. Why was she called Yiskah? Because she could see prophetically (Sochah, from the same root as Yiskah) via the Divine Spirit. Alternatively, because everyone was enchanted by, and consequently gazed at, her beauty.

At first glance, we are perplexed. The two explanations of the name Yiskah seem to be diametrically opposed. One explanation suggests that Sarah was a prophetess, capable of seeing beyond mortal limitations. The other posits that she was a beauty queen, one who made heads turn. How can we possibly resolve this seeming contradiction?

Explains the Be'er Yosef: It is most natural for a woman to desire to be beautiful. Men should not minimize this. It is very deeply ingrained female instinct. When utilized properly, for a higher purpose, this womanly trait can achieve wonders (See Taanis 23b).

Typically, the more people admire a woman's beauty, the more she tends to admire it herself. There is a definite danger of self-aggrandizement and egocentricity. Sarah was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived (Megillah 15a). *Everyone* gazed at her beauty! One would therefore have expected Sarah to succumb to haughtiness.

Nevertheless, Sarah resisted this natural tendency. She overcame her Yetzer Hara and fought against her nature. Despite all the pitfalls in her path, she reached extremely lofty levels of spirituality -- she attained prophecy.

Thus, Sarah was at twenty beautiful like a seven-year-old. A young girl pays no attention to her appearance. But a twenty year old woman, in her prime, that's another thing altogether. Sarah was unique. Her attitude regarding her remarkable beauty was like that of a little girl. In spite of the fact that everyone gazed at her, she did not allow it to go to her head.

Consequently, the Torah does not mention Sarah's beauty as a form of acclaim. After all, her appearance did not result from her own efforts. Rather, the Torah's point is that notwithstanding Sarah's beauty and constant war with her Yetzer Hara, she climbed the ladder of spirituality.

And this resolves the two diverse explanations of the name Yiskah. The juxtaposition of these two answers teaches us that despite the fact that everyone was gazing at Sarah's beauty, she nevertheless reached the degree of prophecy.

If I may be permitted, I would like to add to this explanation of the Be'er Yosef. It is well known that Hashem tests Tzaddikim. Avraham, our founding father, was tested ten times (Avos 5:3). Why? Does Hashem not know the inner workings of the Tzaddik? "[He] Who examines innermost thoughts and feelings... (Yirmiyah 11:20)"

Explains the Ramban (Breishis 22:1): Hashem tests the Tzaddik for the Tzaddik's benefit. If not for the Divine challenge, much of the Tzaddik's potential might remain forever untapped. By presenting the Tzaddik with a challenge, he thereby grows, actualizing his potential in this world.

Indeed, everything in life is a challenge (See Mesillas Yesharim chap. 1). No pain, no gain (Avos 5:23). It is by stretching our spiritual muscles that motivates them to grow. Easy come, easy go.

It would seem that Sarah was given a lifelong test -- the test of natural beauty. While many women tragically fail this difficult test, Sarah, our Bubby, passed with flying colors.

In a way, Sarah's test was more difficult than Avraham's. Although Avraham was tested ten times, each test eventually came to an end. Sarah's test, conversely, was an ongoing, life challenge. Never could she rest. The Yetzer Hara incessantly prodded her toward arrogance, yet she steadfastly stood her ground. Every urge to view herself as anything but a servant of Hashem was immediately quelled. No distraction could divert her from her quest for truth, from her focus on her life mission.

Ultimately, this never-ending challenge strengthened Sarah, to the point that she attained the lofty plane of prophecy. Thus, it was not despite Sarah's beauty that she grew so much, rather because of it. If not for this continual test, Sarah would never have had the opportunity to grow. Potential prophecy would have lain dormant. It was solely because everyone was gazing at her beauty -- making it impossible to ignore -- that Sarah rose to the challenge and eventually attained prophecy.

Every day, we all face tests. Do we rise to the challenge, or do we succumb to surrender? Are we willing to suffer temporary growing pains as an investment for long-term growth, or do we opt for the easy way out, our growth stunted, our potential squandered?

The answer is obvious: No pain, no gain!