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The Essence of a Person

The Torah does not often describe physical attributes: we don’t know if Avraham was tall, or if Ephraim was handsome. What we know about them is what they accomplished with their lives – that, after all, is the measure of the man.

A physical description is just information about a person’s body. A body is a necessary but not sufficient component; we need to have one, and it helps a great deal if it is in decent working order. But deeds in Judaism are measured by the accomplishments of the spirit: we don’t wax rhapsodic about Torah greats who could really cut a rug, or great leaders who also played quarterback for an NFL team. Our physical characteristics don’t really matter in G-d’s eyes – how could they? We are, after all, composed merely of dust and ashes. G-d really cares about our souls – the spark of infinity that he places inside us. So why does the Torah tell us that Yaakov was smooth and Esau was hairy?

The answer is that while G-d may not care who is hairy or smooth, we are but people – and we notice and classify these things. More importantly, there is a great temptation for people to define themselves by their physical limitations or – in the case of Yaakov and Esau – their physical differences.

How could Yaakov and Esau, great men as they were, be affected by something which is, ultimately, a minor distinction? Because their own father classified them this way. When Yitzchak is about to bless Yaakov, Yitzchak does not judge his son by the quality of his thought, but by the way he feels. And when presented with dissonant information (“The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau”), Yitzchak goes with the physical sensation.

So it is no wonder that Yaakov and Esau saw themselves as their father saw them – and acted accordingly. While there is surely a lesson here for all parents, instead of dwelling on it, I’d like to suggest that this theme is present every time the Torah mentions someone’s physicality.

Consider Yitzchak’s blindness. Yes, a blind man is limited to his senses. But Yitzchak had also internalized this limitation in himself, and instead of identifying his sons through word and deed, he categorizes by sense of feel, by using the most rudimentary of all of our senses. The Torah tell us that Yitzchak was blind because Yitzchak himself accepted that as a defining characteristic.

The Torah continues the theme with Moshe. The only thing we know about him physically (besides being capable of great strength at certain times), was that he had a speech impediment. But nobody else in the Torah ever refuses to speak with Moshe, or makes it an issue. On the contrary; they all seem perfectly capable of overlooking a speech impediment in someone of Moshe’s charisma and quality. But that is not how Moshe perceived himself! Moshe thought of his stuttering (if that is what it was) as a real handicap, as something that made certain tasks (such as high level negotiations) beyond his capability.  We don’t know that Moshe stuttered because it really mattered to the story, or to G-d, or even to Pharoah. We know that Moshe stuttered because it mattered to Moshe. Even when G-d objected, and told Moshe that he could lead the Jewish people, Moshe dug in. Because he had fully internalized his speech impediment, he was unable or unwilling to take even G-d’s word for it that stuttering was not a real handicap.

How are we supposed to see ourselves? We can use Yaakov’s sons as the model. None of them is described (save for Joseph) because their father saw them all as individuals, not as their body made them. And so the Torah does not tell us anything about what any of Joseph’s brothers looked like – we know full well from Yaakov’s end-of-life blessing of them that they were each unique, full of different qualities and ambitions. But not a single word of Yaakov’s blessing is about a physical aspect of one of his sons. It is their spirit that defines them, and so it is meant to be for each of us, and for our children in turn.

(Note that all of the examples I bring are of men, not of women. While women generally take appearance more seriously than do men, women are more likely to define their neshamas by their appearance. Men, on the other hand, have more of a disconnect between their body and soul. Men much more easily distance their soul from the actions of their body. As a consequence, Judaism has many more mitzvos for men than for women; giving us the obligation to spend much more time making the connection between body and soul (tefillin being the classic example).

So when the Torah tells us that Rachel was beautiful, or Leah’s eyes were “soft”, it is not meant, as it is in the case of men, to tell us about their perceived self-limitation or potential because of a weakness or strength in their body. Instead, Leah’s eyes are described because her soft eyes are a reflection of her very essence, not a physical limitation that she allows to handicap her soul.)

Comments are welcome!