How will you know how very beautiful you are?
"...You have no idea how very beautiful you are!
Your eyes are two almonds
Shapely carved and colored like the sea,
They hold captive the secret of creation, and are witnesses
To the concealed decrees in the language of eternity
That call to you, and entice and enchant on command –
You froze and did not answer –
You have no idea how very beautiful you are!"
(Shaul Tchernichovsky in his poem "Ilil")
It is exactly for the sake of this moment that the eyes of others were created, to look with love upon the beloved and tell her that she is not yet ready to know "how very beautiful you are!"
If the owner of these almond eyes would see her image as it is reflected in the eye of her beholding lover, it would initiate in her a change. She would dare to, and successfully see, in no limited way, how beautiful she really is.
Who am I and what is my name?
As puzzling as this experience may be, it is also a very familiar one, as a large part of how we know ourselves is the result of human encounters. If the people around me will not tell me, for better or for worse, who I am, it is very unlikely that I will have any idea.
"Shlach," the weekly Torah portion, begins with the story of the spies sent to scout out the land of Canaan. The spies learn to value the power and ability of the Hebrews through encountering local inhabitants. Ten of the spies are scared by what their eyes see and they express their fear in powerful colors.
One of the descriptions deals with reflection, with the powerful reflection and self-discovery that has its origin in the encounter with the other (Numbers 13:33): "And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight."
The spies feel as small as grasshoppers and they have no doubt that that is how their future enemies view them. Perhaps the opposite is true? Perhaps the enemy told them that they were "grasshoppers," and as a result the spies begin to perceive themselves as such? Perhaps it doesn't matter who started the cycle, as at some point the experience begins to be mutual – the self-image and the response from others in the environment become one.
A grasshopper atmosphere
Numerous biblical commentators exploit this verse in order to judge the spies more hoarsely (Babylonian Talmud Masechet Sotah 35A): "Rav Mesharshiya said, 'The spies were liars! The determination that 'we were like grasshoppers in our eyes' is possible to accept, but 'and also in their eyes' - from where would they know how the Canaanites viewed them?'"
The Talmudic sages resolve the problem of their negative self-image with a situation in which spies were briefly seen by the local Canaanite inhabitants and then immediately hid within hearing distance of them and thusly came to know how they were perceived.
Because the hearts are as mirrors
Alongside this concrete interpretation, I want to adopt as a commentator the composer of Proverbs 27:19 who says, "As in water face reflects face, so the heart of a person reflects the person," and on this Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508–1593, Safed) observes: "Because the hearts are as mirrors."
The spies know that they feel as small as grasshoppers, because this self-image, like all self-image, is the result of interaction. If I feel like a "grasshopper," then it is reasonable to assume that there is someone in my surroundings who makes it possible for me to feel this way.
The spies may not necessarily have heard the local inhabitants speaking about them, and they also did not necessarily lie. They felt there was a "grasshopper" atmosphere and they understood that they are not just making it up from their heart. Exactly like if you feel your beloved is very beautiful, this will allow her to feel very beautiful, and this may not even require words.
Grasshopper – courting (chagav and agav in Hebrew)
The grasshopper is an animal that is popular in biblical and rabbinic literature; people fear its damages, eat it (in a variety of recipes) and utilize it as an analogy for life's experiences.
One of the most chilling usages of the grasshopper is in the description of the death process in Ecclesiastes (12:3-5): "In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out shall be darkened in the windows. And the doors shall be shut in the street, when the sound of the grinding is low; and one shall start up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low. Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and terrors shall be in the way; and the almond-tree shall blossom, and the grasshopper shall drag itself along, and the caper berry shall fail; because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets."
Despite the puzzling imagery, this description of the decomposing body and exiting soul succeeds at shocking. The two final stages in the decline of the body are "dragging itself along grasshopper" and "failing caper berry." The sages of the Talmud interpret these two descriptions as the loss of the sexual appetite (Babylonian Talmud, Maasechet Shabbat 152A): "'And the grasshopper shall drag itself along' – these are love, 'and the caper berry shall fail' – these are desire." And so it is that the grasshopper is also the courter.
Sex and aging
Interestingly, according to these biblical commentators, the last thing lost in the aging and dying process is sexual desire. This stands in sharp contrast to the commonly held perception that the sex drive belongs to the young, and therefore the thought of geriatric sex is "unaesthetic" and even illegitimate.
For example, try to remember the last time you saw senior citizens in a movie or in an advertisement, especially elderly women, having sex, or at least projecting eroticism and sexuality.
How cruel, damaging, and extraneous is this modern, polarizing worldview of seniors and sex.
An aggadah on sad grasshoppers-lovers
Following the commentary on the verse from Ecclesiastes, a touching aggadah is brought in the Talmud on the senior years of one of the earliest and greatest sages of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Abba bar Aybo (175-247 CE), usually referred to simply as "Rav."
"Rav Kahana read from the Scripture to Rav. When he arrived at the verse, 'And the grasshopper shall drag itself along, and the caperberry shall fail' (Ecclesiastes 12:5), Rav moaned and groaned. Rav Kahana said, 'He learned from this that Rav's desire was cancelled.'"
The sages do not typically speak about their feelings, so they create for themselves sophisticated tunnels of learning, sometimes incredibly deep and concealed, to express emotion in the space of the beit midrash. Rav does not speak with his disciples and peers about the pains of aging, but he is also unable not to say something. In fact, he does not need to say a lot as we have already seen that "the hearts are as mirrors," and that the people that love Rav, and know from their own experience the difficulties of aging, know how to correctly read Rav's facial expressions.
All that was necessary was for Rav Kahana to read the right verses, for Rav to sigh, and the personal and painful revelation is put out there between friends at the beit midrash: Rav has lost his sexual desire, Rav's death is very near.
We are used to thinking that when there is old age there is no sex, while the sages of the Talmud seek to teach us that when there is no sex there is death. So much insight and so much sadness are focused together in four short Talmudic sentences.
Don't want to play 'grasshoppers and giants'
A very saddening halachic response from one of the Tzohar rabbis, Rabbi Eyal Vered, was published in Ynet's Jewish section last week:
"I organize and run activities for children's birthday parties, and a mother who ordered my services informed me that the event would take place in the auditorium of a Reform synagogue. Am I allowed to go in there according to Jewish Law? Thank you." (Rami from Rishon LeZion)
"Reform Jews as individual people are good Jews, and therefore one should treat them as one treats any other Jew, with respect and good manners. In regards to all things connected to the Reform Movement and Reform ideas, there is no possibility of cooperating with them. From the perspective of Jewish Law, the idea of Reform Judaism undermines the most basic tenants of Judaism.
"It is likely that Reform Judaism actually saves souls from total assimilation in the Diaspora, but here in Israel that is unnecessary, thank God, and Reform Judaism does not have the same power as it does in the Diaspora. Therefore they try to win one type of legitimacy or another through various means, among others - through the renting of auditoriums for celebrations. In this way closeness is created and from there, the path to participating in their 'religious' ceremonies is not far off.
"Therefore, according to my opinion, one should not participate in or organize a party in a place that is part of a Reform building, in order to prevent participating in any type of legitimization of the Reform Movement.'"
In response to this halachic ruling of Rabbi Eyal Vered, I would like to say that the time has come for us to change some of the paradigms that damage our individual and communal lives and prevent us from growing:
1) The phrase "good Jews" and the ruling that "one should treat them as one treats any other Jew, with respect and good manners" are evil because they originate from the clear distinction between Israel and the Nations, between Jews that should be treated with "respect and good manners" and goyim who... In fact, how should one treat Goyim? The paradigm needs to be: "One should treat our brothers, all fellow humans, with respect and good manners. No more or less if they are Jews (as what is hateful to you, do not do unto others)."
2) We stop judging our fellowmen, we stop fearing our fellow men and stop awarding grades to the beliefs of others. Instead of attacking (superficially and without any real halachic justification) the beliefs of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eyal Vered could have said: "Theirs is a Jewish belief system very different from our own. Now go and study. See what is and is not appropriate for you. Hear the truth from the person who said it, and in so doing your own religious faith will grow."
Instead of fighting about different beliefs (Jewish and non-Jewish), it is possible to share knowledge and life experience between believers in different types of faith. Instead of fighting only about who considers himself the frightened little "grasshopper," "love" other people.
My Orthodox friends, I do not want to change your opinions and beliefs. I do not want to denigrate your beliefs and do not want you to see me as a threat (because I am most definitely not one). I want you to stop the disqualifying and belittling and open the possibility for us go learn Torah together.
A self-respecting Orthodox Jew needs to understand that he is not the master of legitimacy, and instead of dealing with controlling the thoughts of members of his community and ours, he is invited to study Torah together.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas.
Click here to read this article in Hebrew.