Beauty and the Kohanim
Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )
The Talmud tells the following story:
The great sage Rabbi Yehoshua was the epitome of wisdom and kindness. Which is why a Roman countess was so stunned when she met him and found that he was so physically unattractive. The countess commented on the tremendous contrast between his inside and outside. In response, Rabbi Yehoshua suggested that she pour some of her most precious wine into gold containers. She did this, and a few days later discovered (to her horror) that the wine had spoiled.
Rabbi Yehoshua explained that he meant to demonstrate how oftentimes a beautiful external appearance can ruin a more important internal aspect. The countess replied in protest that she knew many handsome men who were also good and wise! Rabbi Yehoshua responded that had these men not been so handsome, they might have been even more wise and kind!
While Rabbi Yehoshua clearly made his point, the issue is, of course, far more complex. For instance, the Torah itself notes the physical beauty of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Surely the Torah is not telling us of their limited greatness! Moreover, in Jewish mysticism, physical appearance is considered reflective of a deeper spiritual makeup. (The Kabbalists explain further that at the time of the Messiah, a person's physical appearance will reflect the level of enlightenment that their soul has achieved.)
As with so many other things, beauty is a double-edged sword. In the hands of such lofty individuals as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, it was a device to help them attract others to learn about God. But in the hands of less erstwhile people, it can be an obstacle, proving a true hindrance to spiritual growth. For example, if a girl grows up constantly hearing compliments about her beautiful facial features, will she perhaps be a bit less motivated to develop other, inner aspects of her personality?
King Solomon said: "Attractiveness is a lie, and beauty is worthless; but one who fears God is to be praised" (Proverbs 31:30). On this, the Vilna Gaon (18th century Lithuania) explains: "Attractiveness is a lie, and beauty is worthless" when there is nothing else, nothing more substantial to back it up. But when "fear of God" is also present, then even the beauty is to be praised!
The issue of beauty is central to this week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, which discusses the priestly garments worn in the Holy Temple. The Torah notes that the special clothes of the High Priest were for "glory and majesty," which Nachmanides says were similar to clothes worn by a king.
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the magnificence and beauty of the Temple served to inspire awe in the hearts of all who came, and as such brought them closer to God. In such an environment, anything that was less than "beautiful" would be out of place and detract from the surroundings. This helps explain why Jewish law required that when the priest's clothing became soiled they could not be laundered and reused - but had to be replaced by new garments.
The Torah also says it is forbidden for a Kohen (priest) who has certain distinctive blemishes to serve in the Holy Temple. Is this because due to his blemish he is less beloved by God?!
Of course not. The reason why a Kohen with a physical imperfection was not allowed to serve in the Temple was because of visitors who may experience a loss of respect for the Temple as a result of being distracted by the blemished Kohen. God Himself does not look at the blemished Kohen with less respect; rather the Torah took into account the imperfect nature of people and realized that it was unrealistic to expect each visitor who came to the Temple to focus only on the soul of the blemished Kohen - even though that is the proper way to look as someone.
Precisely because it was God's house, everything in the Temple had to be beautiful. The menorah, the ark, and the other vessels in the Temple had to be beautiful. Even the priests themselves had to be of handsome appearance, since they were, so to speak, also "vessels" in God's Temple.
The beauty of the Temple is perhaps the best possible use of beauty: to remind us of the genius of the ultimate architect, the Creator.