Hayyei Sarah: A Midrash about Beauty

Tue, 11/06/2012 - 11:41am -- JOFA

By Hannah Hashkes

In loving memory of my aunt, Sarah Vakshtok, and my cousin, Rachel Toiber, beautiful women.

This week’s parashaHayyei Sarah, begins with the count of Sarah’s days, a rare occurrence where women are concerned in the Torah: וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה. 

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah.  

But stating the length of Sarah’s life is not the only unusual feature of the verse. A similar structure is used in the reports of Avraham’s and Yitzhak’s deaths as well; still, it is here that Rashi comments on the multiple uses of the word year in the account of Sarah’s death. He notices the separation of the digits making up the numbers of her years by the word year and cites Bereishit Rabba:  

The reason that the word “years” was written after every digit is to tell you that every digit is to be expounded on individually: When she was one hundred years old, she was like a twenty-year-old regarding sin. Just as a twenty-year-old has not sinned, so too when she was one hundred years old, she was without sin. And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old with regard to beauty. 

Rashi also explains the addition, after the year count, of the expression “[these were the] years of the life of Sarah”: They were equal in goodness. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch develops Rashi’s commentary in relation to the fullness of Sarah’s life by emphasizing that every stage of her life received significance when they came to their end. He quotes a Midrash from Bereishit Rabba that relates to this verse the understanding that human life has three stages: childhood, youth, and adulthood. Rabbi Hirsch claims that by way of making each digit stand out, the Torah highlights each of these stages and demonstrates that Sarah lived a life of truth. He observes that a person who lives in truth takes from every stage of her life the attributes that glorify that particular phase of life, such as beauty of the child and innocence of the youth, and carries it to the next one. A person who is “advanced in years” (בא בימים) is a person who does not just pass through the many days of her life but lives within them, as suggested by the literal translation of the Hebrew term, “coming in the days.” Adding up all her days makes her life truly significant, since not one day went to waste.

It is not surprising that Rashi highlights Sarah’s beauty in his commentary. Both the Torah and the rabbis speak in strong terms of Sarah’s beauty. Sarah is taken to royal places twice on account of her beauty. The Midrash in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 58a) situates Sarah in the third place in the universe’s beauty pageant; only the beauty of Adam and Hava, who were created directly by God, surpasses hers. Sarah is not unique in this, however. Rivkah, too, is said to be “very fair to look upon,” despite the fact that, in her case, the Torah takes pains to present her moral virtues as the significant factor for choosing her to be Yitzhak’s wife. Rachel, the famously beloved woman in the Tanakh is, as we well know, “beautiful in form and fair to look upon.” Leah alone, in desperate search for the love she could never receive, is denied beauty, because of her “weak” eyes.

I have always been baffled by these portrayals. Why should the looks of the most important women in the history of our people capture such a central place in the story of their lives? We are used to our modern culture placing beautiful woman in our way wherever we turn, and we have learned to be wary of this fact. We have learned to be on our guard when we are confronted with contemporary media and when we consider buying Barbie dolls for our daughters. But why should we have to be on our guard when we study Torah? If it is true that, as Mishlei says, “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain,” why should it be essential to note that the famous God-fearing women were beautiful? Shouldn’t the lessons taught in our synagogues and houses of study be that the fear of God is wisdom? Why the ambiguous message?   

There is no need to discuss here the problems that the modern ideal of feminine beauty creates, the connection between this ideal and treating women as sexual objects, and the connection between these two and the abuse of women. This issue has been treated extensively, and for good reasons. Here I would like to discuss this subject from a different angle. The truth is that it is difficult to find a culture or cultural expressions that do not link femininity to the notion of beauty in some way or another. Perhaps it is for the simple reason that the feminine and the beautiful are naturally connected to each other. It is impossible, of course, to point to this nature without regarding sexuality. But, as human beings, should we not also live our lives beyond this level? Doesn’t the Torah expect us to? After all, we share the physical attractiveness of beauty with animals and flowers. Is there any other way we can address this issue without talking about sexuality per se?

My feminist conscience does not allow me to make essentialist claims—that is, to say that the feminine, by its very essence, is beauty, in the same way that manliness is “power” or “rule” (as emerges from the woman’s punishment: “he shall rule over you”).

On the other hand, perhaps it is better not to deny such a deeply rooted cultural fact. Is it possible for us to find a way to utilize the link between womanhood and beauty for our purposes? Could we, perhaps, follow Rabbi Yohanan who, upon seeing the physical prowess of Resh Lakish, blessed him that his strength “should be for the Torah”? Can we take a similar path and turn the folly of beauty to the wisdom identified with the fear of God?

For the sake of this endeavor, I have developed a notion of beauty that is somewhat different from the usual one.  I call it four-dimensional beauty, and in what follows I explain this idea.

Two-dimensional beauty is what we find on posters. It depends on the right proportions between length and width, and on specific colorings and other physical attributes. This kind of beauty is connected to fashionable trends, and any particular woman either has, or doesn’t have, it. Sometimes it can be achieved by cosmetic means. This type of beauty fits into two-dimensional modes of presentation: painted pictures, photographs, screens, and mirrors. In this respect, a given culture indeed has control over what we consider to be beautiful and whether or not we regard the women around us as beautiful.

But there is also three-dimensional beauty; for our purposes I will call it here charm, in translation of the Hebrew term hen (חן). This type of beauty is expressed in one’s movements, in speaking gestures, in body language. There are those whose persona, in its three-dimensional aspect, is attractive. We also call these people charming or charismatic. When we encounter these qualities in women, however, we tend to speak about them in aesthetic terms.

In contrast, that which I call four-dimensional beauty concerns the person as a whole. It is a notion of beauty that includes one’s personality without separating it from physical appearance. I do not refer here to the well-worn distinction between internal beauty and external beauty. On the contrary, I reject this distinction because, in a way, it promotes the feminine image as a sexual object, a physical thing that contains, or does not contain, a “beautiful soul.” What I am trying to say is different: There is something that is the personhood of every woman—the sum of her actions, her values, her identity, and the image of herself—and this something is reflected in her body. The personality expresses something, and the body cooperates with it. In regard to women, we call this beauty. This beauty is four-dimensional because it cannot be detected in a picture. Neither can it be seen through a moving body alone, as when a woman dances. One must see the personality as a whole so one can see the lines of life engraved in the body and recognize what they tell us. Sometimes we can capture this beauty intuitively, but it is never enough, because just as is true for everything, intuition is but a starting point, and only personal relationship, long term friendship, shared experiences and common purposes allow knowledge.

If we return to Sarah, Rashi’s commentary, and the words of Rabbi Hirsch, the picture we get about Sarah’s beauty is four-dimensional. It includes her entire person: “all of the one hundred twenty-seven years of her life were life, animated and joyous life, good and significant life. There wasn’t any moment she was better off not living” [my translation]. But in addition to the virtue and joy engraved in her life she had many moments of sorrow, separation, bareness, loss. Engraved in her body were also jealousy, pettiness, anger, and perhaps forbidden desire. Engraved also were lack of faith, fear, and remorse. And in all of these lies her beauty. There is something deep in the eyes that spills over onto the body and gives the lines and scars their proper coloring—beauty. But this is not the beauty of youth; rather, it is the beauty of a harmony created out of conflicts, deviations, twists.

It is rare to find very young women with this kind of beauty. Sure, they have the “right proportions”—they are charming and attractive. But such beauty is reserved, in the most part, for the later stages in life. I imagine Anne Frank as one of the rare women who achieved such beauty at the young age of fourteen. But God has blessed most of us with longer years in which to achieve our beauty, to grow into it. In this sense, and this alone, I am willing to accept the cliché passed on from mother to daughter: “One must suffer to be beautiful.” And in saying this, I am not advocating a life of suffering and self sacrifice. Not at all. I am merely saying something about the realities of human life.

So if you get up in the morning and look at the mirror and do not like what you see, there are two possibilities. The first is an optical aberration. The mirror, as a two-dimensional medium, is deceptive. You are searching for certain proportions, those reflected on the pages of the magazines you read, or the screens you face during your day; maybe these proportions stare at you from your Zumba instructor hopping in front of you at your local fitness center. These proportions are not something one can love—just something one can count or measure. Your mirror is not telling you a truth. The second possibility is that what you see in the mirror and you don’t like is you—the woman you have become. You don’t like the way you run your life, your relationships with the people closest to you, the way you spend the days on this planet. The good news is that you have hope. Instead of running to the fitness center to give yet another chance to achieve the right physical proportions, spend some time thinking about your self. Go out and do one thing that you truly value. And then come back to the mirror in the evening and look to see if you have achieved your beauty, have grown into the beautiful woman you can become. And perhaps tomorrow, forget the mirror altogether and go on your way looking at women around you, especially the not-so-young women, and ask yourself whom would you call beautiful. I know many beautiful women, and with no disregard to the young, most of them are well past their forties.   

It occurs to me that we may have misread the second-to-last verse of the Eishet Hayil song:

אל תקרי "שקר החן והבל היופי". וגם: "אשה יראת ה' היא תתהלל". אלא קראי: "שקר החן והבל", "היופי – אשה יראת ה' היא. תתהלל!" 

You should not read “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain” and “a woman who fears God, she shall be praised.”  Rather, you should read: “Grace [charm] is deceitful and vain” and “Beauty is a God-fearing woman—she shall be praised!”


This originally appeared on the Kolech website. It has been translated and edited by the JOFA Staff.

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