The following English sermon was originally delivered in German on the first day of Sukkot 5768 (27th of September ’07) in Basel. It develops the Jewish notion of beauty and touches upon the meaning of the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge.
Not all that Glitters is Gold
The Torah commands us to take on Sukkot פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר – peri ‘etz hadar.1פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר mean and what can its name tell us about the impact and purpose of this mitzvah. I care to add that we can never fully explain a mitzvah. It is, by its nature, a Divine command, and can only be approached by man, not fully understood. Nonetheless, our questions are legitimate. What is פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר and what does it stand for?
Ibn Ezra translates “hadar” as beautiful, using it as an adjective modifying peri ‘etz. Ramban (Nachmanides), on the other hand, suggest2 that “hadar” is the Hebrew name of the Etrog, the citrus medica. Furthermore, explains Ramban, that “hadar” “means desirable,” “worthy of desire.” This desirable fruit had previously been the object of a well-known, illicit desire, for the ‘etz hada’at, the tree of knowledge, of which the parents of all humanity, Adam haRishon and Chavah, ate. It wasn’t an apple, as Christian artists are mistakenly wont to paint that fruit, but, depending on the opinion in the Midrash, a fig, grapes, wheat, or … an etrog.
Beauty and desire are two concepts very central to Western man. Current permissive Western mores consider that, which arouses desire to also bring happiness and hence to be good. Never mind that the equation desire-happiness, or for that matter happiness-good doesn’t necessarily hold. Does it never happen that acting on our desires eventually make us unhappy? Do we never wake up with second thoughts about how proud and how happy we are about that, which we but yesterday considered a source of happiness?
The Torah, in contrast, teaches through the account of the ‘etz hada’at that sometimes, that which seems good isn’t good after all.
We are sometimes so steeped in our surrounding culture that we mistakenly only see that, which halakhah forbids, but fail to internalize that which it stands for. Consequently, we are torn between that which is considered good, and that which our conscience condones. Thus, tzeniut, modesty, is seen as standing in conflict with the happiness which permissive dress offers. By also considering tzeniut to uniquely apply to women, a non-existent conflict is created between halakhah and women’s status. These misrepresentations are, however, just that, misrepresentations.
Upon some reflection, we grow to understand that objects of desires do not necessarily bring happiness and that temporal happiness isn’t necessarily some supreme goodness. Yes, some desire brings happiness and some happiness is ultimately good. Some, but not all.
By requiring both men and women to dress and behave modestly, halakhah is opening an avenue that is closed to many Westerners: relate to people of the opposite gender in a truly wholesome, nonsexual manner. Be valued for your entire person, not just as a body. Be taken seriously by others at work, at school, wherever people interact, and not constantly ogled by others. Ultimately, there is great happiness and great goodness in being able to resist being reduced to a body much of the time.
An artist once told a rabbi about some new artistic creations, quickly adding: “but you won’t find my sculptures beautiful, for they are inspired from the female body,” whereupon the rabbi answered: “why would I consider these not to be beautiful, They very well may be beautiful, but nonetheless, not all that is beautiful should be seen before all.”
The commandment to take the etrog as part of the arba’ minim is, according to Ramban, a reparation of Adam and Chavah’s sin. We subdue the etrog to the lulav, signifying the human being somewhat beint, in submission, before G”d. We join it with the myrtle branches (hadassim), symbolizing Divine emanation in the world, and the willow branches (‘aravot) that symbolize heaven (cfr. לְרֹכֵב עַרָבוֹת, Tehillim/Psalms 68:5).
Adam and Chava misunderstood the purpose of visual delight (the fruit was “a delight to look at”, Bereishit/Genesis 3:6), as well as the arousal of desire (ibid.), and hence transgressed the only mitzvah they had. We, with the arba’ minim, repair that mistaken attitude by placing the etrog inn its proper context of fear of the Divine and observance of the Torah values. Is it not most fitting to take it to heart that, unlike the permissive hedonism that surrounds us, we understand and know that that which is vulgar isn’t beautiful, and that which is beautiful shouldn’t be degraded and made vulgar? As we enter the Sukkah, enveloping ourselves in a mitzvah, we can now decide no longer to subject ourselves to the degradation that passes for fashionable or otherwise desirable amongst some mistaken souls. Come the next opportunity, we will watch our dignity and thereby elevate the people around us. ‘Alu vehatzlichu!
2Commentary of Nachmanides ibid.