Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim
One of the profoundest tensions that newcomers to Judaism experience occurs within their perceptions of beauty. So many of us were initially attracted to Torah due to some sort of beauty which it promised to infuse within our lives. But before we know it, this selfsame beauty is being challenged, sometimes quite harshly, by “insiders!” If we’re lucky, we’ll pick up the dissonance purely from within our own, religiously maturing hearts. But the resistance nevertheless remains.
It’s like breaking ties with a best friend.
Personally I’ve been going through such withdrawals for quite some time and have comforted myself with the belief that “one day” I’ll be able to uplift that frustration via a little expose` on how the phenomenon works. The following is my first attempt to officially do so, based on this week’s Parsha.
May G-d extend Yafet
And may he dwell in the tents of Shem
And may Canaan be a servant unto him
~ Gen. 9: 27 ~
The root of the most common Hebrew word for beauty, yofee, according to HaRav S.R. Hirsch, is f-t. In his commentary on the blessing that Noach gives to his son Yafet, Hirsch explains that the “y” is a prefix and that its cognates are words like peti, pitui and petach (“f” and “p” sounds come from the same Hebrew consonant), which respectively translate as vulnerable, seduction and opening. The common denominator between all these words is an extra sensitivity to external influence.
Thus we can begin to appreciate that initial burst of beauty which draws so many of us to seek respite from the rat-race of this world. The electric leap out of the skin that such beauty provides imprints upon our souls that life is far greater than what it appears to be. Many speak of feeling “breathless,” being “swept off” their feet or even having one’s mind “blown away!” All these expressions belie the power of yofee to blip us out of the frenzied grip that the externalities of this world usually have over our vulnerable psyches.
But the holy tongue doesn’t stop there. Hebrew has another word for beauty: naeh. Related forms are words like naot, navah and naveh, which all connote something much, much deeper than yofee. Perhaps a more accurate translation would be magnificence.
As per the end of the Shabbos song, “Shimru Shabbsosai,” in reference to the Holy Temple:
O’ supreme G-d,
strengthen my compound
and return my Navah
in joy and splendor.
For songs of My rejoice
will be sung there
by Kohan and Levite,
Indeed, then (we) will
Surely we’re speaking here of a most magnificent edifice that pulsates with such spiritually uplifting energy that one simply must burst out in song. Actually we find this word first used with precisely this meaning within the Song at the Sea (Ex.15: 2; 13), sung by the Israelites in prophetic ecstasy as they were experiencing total detachment from their Egyptian tormentors:
This is my G-d
and I will Naveh Him…
With Your kindness You have led this people
whom You have redeemed;
You have led with Your might
towards Your holy Naveh
A few chapters later, when instructing Moshe about how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which serves as the model for the Temple, the Torah refers to a simple drape which must be placed over the intricately designed tent of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26: 13). About this superfluous drape Rash”y comments:
(This is) in order to teach a major principle of life:
that a person should take extra care of yofee
The externality of the Tabernacle was yofee, which must be especially protected (lest it descend into a mere esthetic buzz). But not its inner reality. Thus we find the custom of singing the famous proverb about hevel ha’yofee, that yofee is vain (Prov. 30:31), at the onset of Shabbos – that weekly oasis in time which we’re bidden to celebrate as a memorial to the Exodus from Egypt as well as a time for refraining from all the labors involved in constructing the Holy Temple. It’s because Shabbos, like the essence of the Exodus and the Holy Temple, is a time our souls are given for transcending the natural beauty of yofee and entering the magnificent beauty of navah.
Perhaps this principle is revealed most succinctly within the Laws of Pesach (Sh. Ar., O. Ch. 472:2), which is also called Shabbos (Lev. 23):
One should arrange his (Seder) table yafeh,
with naeh vessels
We start out yafeh, but end naeh. Aye, isn’t this precisely what we all feel after going through an intensive Pessach Seder? When we first sat down, the table and the food and our Haggadahs and our clothes were all so… so… yofee! But by the end, with all the Matzah crumbs and spilled wine and groggy minds and soaring spirits, who could describe the upliftment we all feel while dancing and singing “Next year in Jerusalem” other than… naeh?
Indeed, King Dovid makes this wondrously clear in that famous declaration (Ps. 19):
The Torah of G-d is wholesome,
wizening the vulnerable (peti)
When we learn Torah with the intention of tapping into its ultimate, eternal wholesomeness (which of course is what the Seder is all about), we find its wisdom shedding all vestiges of yofee.
And thus we can return to Grandpa Noach, at the dawn of a brand new, pure world, and understand something of the importance he gives to the beauty of Yafet (the progenitor of the Greeks) developing within a very clear direction under the auspices of his younger brother, Shem (the progenitor of the Jews), and why he insists that the cursed Canaan (the original, coarse inhabitants of the Land of Israel) be subservient to it. He obviously realizes that the momentary liberation from the shackles of this world that yofee provides can never last. Only by encouraging us to transform that yofee into the world of Navah Koidesh, the Holy Temple, which is all about soul elevation, can the entire family of mankind ever hope to achieve eternity.
Reb Yaacov Yisroel is a Slonimer Chossid, living with his wife and children on the outskirts of Mea Shearim, Israel. He hails from the Mojave desert, California, and studied Comparative Religion at U.C. Berkely, after which he explored a wide gamut of Torah studies in Eretz Yisroel. From there he studied Ed. Counseling and Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan U., leading to over a decade of work within both the public and religious Israeli educational system. Eventually his growing passion for Chassidic philosophy led him to the sforim of Slonimer Chossidus and the rest is history (still in the making!). Presently he teaches and counsels in a religiously run rehab. center for addicts, hosts many newcomers into Judaism from local BT Yeshivas and the Koisel, and is writing a book about the “UN-believable” power of the Nesivos Shalom (the most popular teachings from Slonimer Chossidus). He would be happy to receive personal communication about his writings at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org