Beautiful on the Inside and Out
A couple of weeks ago the media was taken by storm when a leaked photo of Cindy Crawford went viral on many social media outlets. The shot, taken from a photoshoot for Marie Claire in the United States, shows the former American model in black lingerie sporting a fur coat and a not quite taught stomach. The image is untouched by the normal airbrush that so often perfects people’s imperfections. It shows a beautiful woman for exactly what she is, a woman.
Reactions to the photo were highly positive. Other celebrities praised her courage and women across the globe felt empowered, relieved and grateful to her according to body image experts. It equated beauty with truth. It was real and honest, making Cindy Crawford not just a supermodel but a role model.
Yet this image was an exception in our media that is saturated with images of perfectly unattainable human beings. In our world that seems to value the physical and material over the spiritual there is constant pressure put on us to look and be a certain way. The digital age presents us at the touch of a finger countless stories and depictions of ‘perfection’ leading us to a narrative that being human will never be enough.
Traditionally Judaism has countered this pressure by taking the focus away from our individual appearance. The streets of Jerusalem, and Golders Green, are filled with a uniform of black suits and hats, beards and peyot. Ultra orthodox Jewish women cover their hair and every inch of their bodies so as not to distract with their physical appearances. This might lead us to believe that as Jews we are not bound by our aesthetics, in fact that they hold little importance in our world of spirituality.
However right here in the torah portion we read this week, that details for us potentially our first Jewish ‘uniform’, we are surrounded with ornamental beauty in the designing of the robes for the High Priest. The finest of materials are used: gold, blues, crimsons, the finest of linens. The priests were to wear their special garments when fulfilling their priestly duties and at no other times. It is a very aesthetically pleasing affair!
The narrative flows from a description of the lavish garments to their function within sacrificial ceremonies. Following this we are once again presented with an an ‘Ikea’ manual of construction, this time found in the directions for building the altar for burning incense which will be used every morning and evening by the high priest. This is described as being the place where God’s presence meets with the priest, just in front of the Ark of the Pact. Similar to the description of the aron kodesh crafted within the mishkan last week, we are told that this should be built to the designated blue print and overlaid with pure gold, on the top, the sides and the back.
Why was it important for the altar, just like the ark, to be covered in gold both on its visible and hidden parts? Surely, one of the holiest places within our tabernacle should be gold the whole way through? Is it not deceiving to masquerade as solid gold, when in fact it is only acacia wood with a gold veneer?
Various biblical scholars have debated the implications for our daily worship behind this use of a golden covering. Perhaps these items were not made from solid gold in order to not place material wealth at the centre of our worship? Perhaps it was practical; to make them less heavy and more portable?
Or perhaps the specifications of this design were to portray a deeper message: the rabbis of the Talmud tell us we should let our characters be like the aron kodesh, gold on both the inside and the outside. We must be as pure and beautiful in our innermost selves as we are on the parts of us that get exposed to the world.
In this sense we have an obligation to look after our internal health with as much care as we look after our external appearance. Our tradition teaches that as human beings we are created explicitly in the image of God and therefore it is our duty to take care of our bodies and look after ourselves. As Progressive Jews we strive to create a healthy balance between the material and the spiritual; not protected or constrained by the uniformity of orthodoxy, we have to strive to negate the pressure from a range of celebrity-obsessed media outlets whilst still holding the ethos of Judaism in our hearts.
Sometimes this pressure becomes all too much and in the pace of modern life we easily lose sight of our internal wellbeing. It can be a slippery slope from conforming to the social norms projected by celebrities to neglecting our mental and consequently our physical health. This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, a campaign run by ‘beat’, the charity that helps those suffering from eating disorders on the road to recovery. It is a good time for us to reflect on our own emotional wellbeing and to think of those who may need our support and guidance.
We need do no more than look to our Jewish texts and traditions for comfort. Our healing prayer is not just for body but also for nefesh, for soul. As a community we need to take the time to nurture both, for ultimate healing cannot be achieved until we are at peace physically and mentally. Furthermore, at various points in the sources, the narrative expresses the principle that human beings are forbidden from harming themselves or from putting themselves in danger, on a par with the edict that to save a life supersedes all other commandments.
Our beautiful religion can always help in our times of need. Judaism attributes ritual significance to many of our everyday activities, which help us to focus on the here and now, the small chunks of life that we can cope with, and not get distracted by external images of unachievable perfection. Joining together with our community, which lies at the centre of our religious lives, can be a good way to help remind us that we are more than the challenges and anxieties we are faced with.
Issues of mental health are not easy to talk about and it is often more comfortable to take the stance that these things do not happen to us, only to other people. Yet Judaism, if this week’s sidra is anything to go by, values the inside just as much as the outside and holds saving life as its highest principle. We can hardly do any less than we look after ourselves and our community, both physically and mentally.
Heal us, God, and let us be healed.
Save us and let us be saved
Grant full healing to our every illness
Healing of spirit
and healing of body.
Baruch atah adonai, rofei hacholim.
Blessed be you God, who heals the sick.
Student Rabbi Hannah Kingston
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.