In this week’s Torah portion, God describes to Moses how to construct the Tabernacle. Upon God’s request, the Israelites gather their finest gold for the Tabernacle. According to the text, the Tabernacle features fine linen curtains and an extravagantly decorated table surrounded by cherubs. God emphasizes the quality of the Tabernacle’s appearance, stressing its holiness and therefore on level with its relationship to God. Throughout this week’s Torah parsha, God emphasizes the attractiveness of the Ark, but modern values make this emphasis on aesthetics seem superficial and perhaps unnecessary.
We all know the clichés “Looks don’t matter” or “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, yet the extent to which people act on these sayings poorly reflects how often we hear them. Unfortunately, image plays an important role throughout the world. Keeping the Torah in a cardboard box rather than a finely constructed ark depreciates its value in some aspect. The lessons within the scroll remain the same, but the degree to which people respect the book changes. In this way, people are not shallow but merely psychologically affected by appearance. By no fault of their own, one’s experience changes as what they see changes. Part of the distinction between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom is a love of art. Paintings, theater, and buildings alike demand talent to design because we value their attractiveness. Wanting anything to appear nicely is inherent within human nature. When it comes time to think about whom to marry, we choose someone we find at least somewhat physically attractive. Whenever we come into the temple sanctuary, the beauty of the room sets a tone for worship. In a less appealing room, the mood completely changes, and the meaning of the prayers in the congregation hearts suffer from this alteration. As much as I want to believe looks do not matter, I know that is only a lie I can tell myself for so long.
On the contrary, we need to strive to move past this emphasis on visuals and focus on that which makes a human more than their external features. In the example previously used, I said that looks matter when deciding on a life partner, but the person with the nicest hair or the best body in our eyes is not necessarily our soul mate. Certainly, we need to find someone who physically pleases our mental image of the ideal partner, but they need other qualities that extend beyond their appearance. Likewise, we need to set aside aesthetics when they very minimally impact our experience. While the sanctuary or the Tabernacle deserves some form of beauty to please people in regards to worship, selecting who reports the news on TV should not require an attractive, young person, as unfortunately frequently happens. As looks play no substantial part in the equation, remove them from the process.
In regards to this week’s puzzling emphasis on looks, then, the question arises on how to live within this balance. One needs to place some stress on personal appearance and aesthetics in general. Sure, we need to dress somewhat nicely for job interviews, but this obsession with looks in America and all around the world needs to end when it reaches extremes. The difference between looking nice and appearing perfect is substantial. Attractiveness means going to the gym to maintain a healthy weight or wearing braces to improve one’s smile. Perfection leads to outrageous diets, eating disorders, and unnecessary surgeries. One must stay within their bounds of sanity, for obsessing over looks makes one superficial. Their increasing quality of physical appearance often depreciates their focus on perfecting what really matters: the soul. When within reach, make the sanctuary pretty, dress the Tabernacle with linen curtain, or shine the shoes a little bit. In this way, we build confidence by carrying ourselves proudly in generating good self body image, but we stay between the limits of effort and obsession. One should judge others as he or she wants to be criticized. Recognizing beauty and forming an attitude about a person based on it are distinct entities. To be shallow is to form an opinion about someone based on their appearance. Rather, people need to take appearance minimally in regards to their judgment. If we all work to perfect our own look while judging people minutely on their appearance, these actions cyclically improve one another. In that way, God teaches us to design ourselves beautifully like the Tabernacle, for we are all created in the image and in respect to God.