Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pathway Seven. Beauty

Beauty is a valuable but dangerous quality.  of beauty can be illustrated by the following analogy.[1] Two people travelled to the palace to glimpse the king. The first was highly educated and cultured. Upon entering the palace’s magnificent hallway he was dazzled by the intricate beauty of the artwork and absorbed in the history of the relics. Time passed, and he lost the opportunity to glimpse the king. The second visitor was simple and uneducated. Knowing that he had arrived to see the king, he marched straight through the hallways, oblivious to their grandeur, until he arrived at the king’s throne room, where he succeeded to behold the king.

Each approach contains an advantage and a disadvantage. The first individual’s refinement enabled him to appreciate the magnificent palace, yet it distracted him from his goal. The second individual’s simplicity allowed him to reach his destination without delay, yet he entered the throne room lacking an essential element—awe of the king. The hallways serve a purpose; they are designed to be august and intimidating in order to prepare the subject to encounter the king with fitting reverence.

Similarly, there are two aspects to Mitzvah observance: performing the Mitzvah itself, which connects one with the divine, and preparing for the Mitzvah.

The preparation entails contemplating the mystical meaning behind the particular Mitzvah. This ensures that the Mitzvah is fulfilled with the appropriate reverence and joy. However, one can become so immersed in the meditative preparatory stage that he loses sight of the truth that performing the Mitzvah creates one’s main attachment to G–d.

Others fulfil Mitzvot with no preparation at all, failing to approach Mitzvot in the appropriate frame of mind. The message here vis-à-vis the theme of beauty is clear: perception of divine beauty is merely a means to an end, for it prepares the person to cleave to the simple and infinite Essence of G–d through Mitzvot.

The verse states, “G–d made man straight (“yashar,” i.e., honest, upright), and they sought many devices (“cheshbonot rabim”; lit., calculations).”[2] The Chassidic masters interpret this to mean that G–d created man to serve Him with simplicity by relating directly to His infinite, yet simple Essence, and thereby gaining perception of His unity. It scolds those who become so preoccupied with the pursuit of the complexity of His manifestations that they are distracted from the underlying divine unity.[3]

At the same time, Chasidic philosophy focuses on contemplating the complexities of creation and the infinite patterns contained within the Sefirot. Since delving into complex divine beauty can bring one to lose sight of divine unity, some mystics will prepare for prayer by consciously clearing their mind of thoughts of divine complexity. They are then able to pray to G–d with simplicity and childlike purity.[4]

This theme is highlighted in the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. The High Priest wore two sets of garments, the gold vestments,[5] which were highly ornate and colourful, and the white vestments,[6] which were simple, made of linen, and worn under the other garments.

There are two explanations for the requirement to wear the gold vestments over the white vestments:

1.     The gold vestments signify the splendour of the High Priest’s position as leader of the divine service in the Holy Temple.[7] The white garments made from flax which grows from the earth remind the High Priest that as a human he comes from dust and returns to dust. The humbling white garments counterbalance the grand golden garments, reducing the danger of the High Priest becoming arrogant and abusing his position.[8]

2.     At a mystical level, the golden garments represent the beauty of the physical and spiritual realms G–d created. The white garments, in contrast, represent the simple unity of G–d that underlies all existence.[9] As mentioned, the white garments were made from flax. Flax is a simple plant growing as individual stalks without any branches or offshoots. In Hebrew flax is called bad, alone, alluding to the plant’s unique character. The white garments’ place beneath the golden thus represents the concept that all complexity and beauty emanates from the simple, indivisible Essence of G–d.[10]

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the High Priest would enter the Temple’s holiest chamber, the Holy of Holies. He alone was permitted entry, and only on Yom Kippur. There he would offer incense before G–d in order to atone for the Jewish people. When entering he would wear the white vestments only.[11]

Why indeed did he not wear the more grand golden vestments? At Mount Sinai the Jewish people enjoyed a collective mystical experience.[12] The heavens opened and a glorious heavenly chariot with faces on each of its four sides was perceived. On the right side was the face of a lion, on the left an ox, on the front an eagle, and on the back, a man.

When the Jews later fashioned the Golden Calf, they sought to replicate the heavenly ox in physical dimensions and employ it as an intermediary between themselves and G–d. The sin, in essence, consisted of over-attachment to one of the divine emanations to the extent that the Essence of G–d became secondary.

This is considered the source of all sin—substituting G–d with anything else. Thus, it was befitting for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies with his white vestments, which represent the singular Essence of G–d, for they reflect the process of repentance—re-attuning one’s consciousness to G–d’s Essence. Wearing the golden vestments would not have highlighted this principle.

Another teaching with a similar message: Prior to the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, a Shofar was sounded to prepare the Jews for the Torah’s reception.[13] Why did G–d prepare the Jews to receive the Torah with the primitive, aesthetically unpleasing sound of the Shofar? Surely a grand orchestra playing moving and inspirational melodies would have been more befitting.[14]

The[15] human psyche consists of two general components: its essence, and the faculties of intellect and emotion that extend from that essence. A major difference between these two aspects is that the essence is utterly simple, while the lower faculties are complex. Intellect analyses concepts by fragmenting them into their components and seeks to perceive ideas from alternate angles. The heart consists of several primary emotions that combine to form numerous types of emotional expression.

The type of output produced by each faculty depends upon the nature of the faculty. Thus, the complex nature of the faculties of intellect and emotion leads their products to be similarly complex. This is also true in the realm of sound. A highly sophisticated musical pattern typically combines a rich mixture of emotional expression with the guidance of a mind educated in the art of music. The indivisible soul essence, in contrast, emanates a simple sound; this is captured in the blow of the Shofar.

The Torah, though complex and profound, stems from the utterly simple Essence of G–d. It thus addresses not the external faculties of intellect and emotion, but rather, the person’s essence. Thus we should expose our essence to Torah while studying it, so that it permeates the core of our being. The sound of the Shofar, reflecting our essence, reminds us that when we learn Torah we should not treat it as a textbook of elegant and useful constructs that relate only to our external faculties. The Torah emanates from divine Essence and should touch our soul’s essence.

This principle also applies to human interaction and self-perception. The Torah stresses the importance of modesty in clothing.[16] Torah law enjoins the covering of almost all parts of the body beside the face and hands. These parts are excluded because they, incomparably more than other body parts, express the person’s inner self, the soul. Every subtle movement of the face reveals an emotion and inner experience. In fact, the Hebrew word for face, ponim, is related to the word p’nim, inside, for precisely this reason.[17]

Furthermore, speech, the communicative faculty par excellence, which enables one to articulate thoughts and feelings with tremendous accuracy and detail, is located on the face. The hands too are used for gesture and communication as well as for fine motor skills that also express the soul’s advanced talents, such as writing, painting, or playing music. How much soul, in comparison, is expressed via the legs, shoulders, or other body parts?

Often the physical body is so attractive that during interaction with that person one loses sight of the truer and deeper beauty that rests within. Similarly, some get so absorbed in their own external beauty and appearance that they lose sight of their inner selves. Thus, the Torah only permits exposure of the soul-expressive faculties in order to remind us where the emphasis should lie in our self-perception, and to enable others us to relate to others as soul-filled beings.[18]

[1] The Lubavitcher Rebbe.
[2] Ecclesiastes, 7:29.
[3] Imrei Bino, Preface.
[4] cf. Derech Mitzvosecha, 118a—“I pray with the intention of a child.”
[5] These garments are made of gold or contain golden thread and are therefore referred to as the golden vestments. These were the tzitz (a thin gold band upon which the words “Kodesh La’Shem” are inscribed, worn upon the forehead), the efod (apron), the choshen (breastplate), and the me’il (robe).
[6] These were the kutones (long shirt), michnasayim (breeches), avnet (belt), and migba’as (hat).
[7] Rabbeinu Bechayei al HaTorah, Exodus, 28:2.
[8] ibid., Leviticus, 16:4.
[9] ibid., Exodus, 28:2.
[10] Ateres Rosh, 31a-31b.
[11] Leviticus, 6:14.
[12] Exodus Rabba, 3:2. Tanchuma, Ki Sisa, 20.
[13] Exodus, 19:20.
[14] cf. Torah Ohr, 73b.
[15] The following answer is based on a lecture given by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in Melbourne.
[16] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, ch. 2, ch. 75.
[17] Torah Ohr, 84b. Tefillos Mikol Hashonah, 294b. Sefer HaMa’amarim Melukat, vol. 1, p. 223.
[18] In Search of the Jewish Women, Miller, pp. 125-126 quoting Minchas Shmuel.

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