Parshas Chayei Sarah
Beauty and Grace
What does it mean to be perfect? What does it mean to "have never sinned"?
This week's Parsha begins with an accounting of Sarah's life. "Sarah lived
100 years, 20 years, and 7 years. Rashi explains that the breakdown of 127
teaches a fundamental lesson about the unique life of Sarah. "When Sarah
died at the age of 127 she was as innocent as she was when she was 20 and
as beautiful as when she was 7."
What lesson did the Torah intend by telling us the comparative breakdown
of Sarah's life? More so, the association of innocence with being 20 and
beauty with being 7 seems reversed. Innocence is usually associated with
the young while beauty gains substance and recognition with maturity. Why
the unusual reverse associations?
Rav S.R. Hirsch explained that laudable innocence presumes the possibility
of innocence lost and the character strength needed to maintain innocence.
A seven year old may be innocent; however, her innocence is natural,
unassuming, and untested. On the other hand, a twenty year old who is
truly innocent is a person who has successfully struggled with who she is,
what she is, and the challenges of her society. She has embraced values
that are often at variance with societies values and remained resolute.
Such a person deserves to be praised as “innocent.”
My Grandfather Zt’l explained that Sarah's beauty was compared to a seven
year old because beauty in the Torah is tantamount to recognition and
quality. The first thing we usually notice about each other is
appearances. It is only after we have gotten to know each other that
appearances are overshadowed by the quality of character, or lack there
Our expectations for children are much less than our expectations for
adults. Adults, beautiful in appearance or not, who misbehave are not
easily excused or forgiven. On the other hand, a child, especially a
beautiful child, who misbehaves, the tendency is to first excuse with such
expressions as, “how cute,” “how precocious.”
My Grandfather Zt’l explained that even as an adult Sarah elicited from
others the same reaction as does a beautiful child. No one could find
fault in her. Her actions were as beautiful as her being and everyone who
met her recognized it.
I would like to suggest that the Torah compared Sarah’s beauty to the
beauty of a child of seven and her innocence to the innocence of a 20 year
old because Sarah accepted her exceptional beauty with the same unassuming
innocence that a beautiful seven year old does.
Beautiful children are mostly unaware of how others react to their beauty.
And so it should be! They take their appearance for granted and are as
happy to be dirty, disheveled, unbrushed, and unbathed as they are to be
dressed, coifed, and primed for a wedding or other “fancy” event. It is
the adult who teaches the young, beautiful, and innocent, to realize the
manipulative power of appearances. Young children may have natural
tendencies toward coyness and “pinky wrapping” but it is we adults and the
way we react to beauty that permits the tendency to become an art form.
Sarah never translated her beauty into anything more than the naturalness
of the very young. Seemingly unaware of her own beauty, it took Avraham
Avinu at the age of 75 to say to his 65-year-old wife, (12:11) “I realize
that you are a beautiful woman when the Egyptians see you therefore say
you are my sister” Sarah may very well have been exceedingly beautiful
whole lot to her. Others may have placed undue value on her beauty, but
not Sarah herself. Her beauty was the more complex and profound beauty of
a mature woman but her self-image was with the same innocence and humility
of a seven year old.
It is strange that the Torah seems to place such value on beauty. Sarah,
Rivkah, Rachel, and Yoseph, are but a few of the biblical figures
described by Tanach as beautiful or exceedingly handsome.
The Mishnah in Avos (6:8) lists the characteristics of a Tzadik, “Beauty,
strength, wealth, honor, wisdom, old and hoary age, and children.” At the
end of the same Mishnah it states, “R’ Shimon ben Menasya said: These
seven qualities were all realized in Rebbi and his sons.”
Describing the creation of the trees and the formation of Gan Eden the
Torah writes, (2:9) “Every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good
In recording Chava’s reaction to the Tree of Life the Torah writes,
(3:6) “The woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and delight
to the eyes”
Why the emphasis on beauty?
Rav S.R. Hirsch (Bereshis 2:9) writes,”Here the esthetic element, man’s
feeling for beauty, receives its justification and sanctity. This seems to
indicate the higher place intended for man in the scheme of Creation. The
abundance of beautiful forms which we note among the creatures on our
earth and the fact that as far as we know - man is the only creature
endowed capacity for enjoying beauty, verifies the importance which the
Creator attaches to this capacity in man’s spiritual and moral calling.
Indeed the beautiful forms that are scattered throughout creation, along
with man’s capacity for deriving pleasure from them, represent the
principal means for protecting man from becoming completely brutalized it
represents a bridge which le the stage where he is able to derive pleasure
also from things and ideas of spiritual and moral beauty.
In an environment where no attention is given to harmony and beauty, man
can easily run wild. The emotion that allows man to derive pleasure from
order and harmony is closely akin to man’s sense of order and harmony also
in the sphere of ethics and morality.
Rav Hirsch’s approach to esthetics establishes beauty and form as a means
toward understanding G-d, His majesty and wisdom. It reflects order and
purpose in all that G-d created and focuses us on seeking to emulate the
same. Like G-d’s total creation, our lives should be ordered in such a
manner that all aspects of life integrate within the context of
unassailable givens. Morality, service, selflessness, strength,
integrity, compassion, trust, belief, sanctity, personal respect,
appreciation, value, and family, join beneath the banner of Truth to form
a lifestyle of blessing and contentment. This was the message Avraham and
Sarah hoped to impart to their students and especially to Yitzchak.
It makes sense that Sarah would be a person whose very being reflected the
integration of beauty and character, spirit and body. However, Sarah just
didn’t happen. She had to face the challenges of her self and her society
and discover the purpose and value that would frame and dictate the
emergence of her true self as a servant of G-d. In that way Sarah was
Sarah was able to evolve in her maturation bringing along the truths she
had discovered and the lessons she had learned at each stage. The untested
innocence of her young beauty remained pure because she worked to keep it
pure. In time her beauty was tested and she did not falter. She remained
the same unassuming and humble servant who recognized her beauty as a gift
and a responsibility. Desired and admired by all, Sarah’s modesty became
the comment of angels and the stuff of legends.
The Talmud in Kedushin (29b) relates the obligation for a man to marry by
the age of 20. (The spectrum of opinions in the Talmud range from 18 to
22.) Rav Chisda stated that his personal excellence in Torah above and
beyond his contemporaries was due to the fact that he married at 16. He
goes on to say that had he married at 14 he could have told the Yetzer
Harah (evil inclination), “An arrow in your eye!” (An ancient Babylonian
version of, “Go jump in the lake”)
Can any of us imagine our children marrying at 16, let alone at 14? Were
those early generations so much more mature than our own?
The Talmud does not suggest that we marry off our children at 14, 16, 18,
or any other age. It does mandate that we know our children well enough to
know when they should get married. It presumes that we are honest enough
to recognize the telltale signs of maturation, interest, and need, and
that we are prepared to create the environment and support for their
emergence into the integrated world of responsible relationships. We do
not put them on hold or ice and we certainly cannot abandon them to the
embrace of societal norms. We must continue in our G-d given parental
responsibility of teaching and training our children. All of us understand
the importance of teaching our children to read and write. Why would we
assume that just because they turn 20-something they know how to build a
Sarah’s innocence at the age of 20 reflected the early integration of
physicality with maturity, purpose, and responsibility. We too must do the
same for our children. Imagine a world that frames emerging sensuality and
need in value and purpose. That was the world of Rav Chisda. His world
allowed his maturing self to emerge within the context of a responsible
and directed relationship. It did not presume greater maturity than was
his due. In fact, it presumed his immaturity and his need for constant
attention and direction as he and his spouse discovered the balance
between desires and responsibility. It presumed the determination and
valor of Sarah who molded herself into a purposeful and accomplished force
of goodness. Not by denying who and what she was but by seeking the
healthiest and most respected expression for her needs, strengths and
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Torah.org
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley
Village, CA, and Assistant Principal of YULA.