Saturday, February 16, 2013

Believe It Or Not, Looks Matter

            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 clich├ęs “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.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Commandment 3

In last week's Torah portion (Exodus-Yitro), God presents Moses with the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The third of these commandments presented being "You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name."  During modern times, many people still adhere to this commandment's demands, yet a growing number of people see no validity in commandment three.  Of all the ten commandments, commandment three stands as one of the most controversial, lacking practicality and seems much more negative than the others.

On the contrary, numerous people find immense value in their abstention in swearing, and society still deems such censorship an admirable trait. When one analyzes the Ten Commandments, he or she sees that the first five revolve around matters of God: worshipping only God, protecting Gods' speech, keeping the Sabbath, and the second half of commandments deals with the domestic sphere: murder, jealousy, and adultery. Commandment three's original intents follows suit with its two predecessors. First, God enforces a sense of omnipotence. Second, God establishes monotheism, devaluing any otherwise worshipped objects. Here, God reiterates this sentiment in demanding that no one desecrates God's name through false language, interpreted by the majority as swearing in general. In a literal sense, the commandment stands as an additional way one respects God. Swearing's implications extended beyond this respect, though, for as people disdained others, foul language made people uncomfortable. Though some speak freely, one needs to empathize with those who swearing discomfort. Finally, when somebody swears, they admit something in their character. Cursing projects an angry attitude toward others, broken lawn mowers (as my dad can testify to), or horrifying news that comes to our eyes. Dropping the f-bomb leaves it effects beyond the simple conversation. When our reactions transform into cursing out, we leave a trail of angry moments. All of the sudden, we become an angry person. Just as body language incredibly affects social interaction, oral language plays a similar role. In a job interview, words matter. Even if one hated their last job, they cannot curse their boss when questioned about it at the new business. God delivered this commandment to gain respect, but swearing gained certain social consequences throughout the ages.

Until recently, I asserted that these notions made the commandments imperative to follow. I thought about the actual implication of swearing, compared to murder. Breaking these commandments leads to substantial repercussions. While swearing expresses a certain mindset, nobody dies. Really analyzing their meaning, swears are just as much words as "dog" or "cat".  There are millions of words in the English language, and we selected a certain number as inappropriate for commonplace speech. If we suddenly made the word "toilet" a curse,  does that suddenly make saying it in bad taste in the eyes of God? Truthfully, humans chose our language's curses, and therefore not swearing does not lie in the rule of God. Our ancestors censored society, not God.  In addition, I used to criticize my father for swearing often. As mentioned, I believe it reflects a negative attitude, yet I realized that these words that we deemed "swears" create just as much a thrill as when one "lives on the edge". The easiest way to encourage somebody to act a certain way is to restrict the very action. Making a rule causes people to break the said rule. Similarly, swears' existence causes our brains to feel somewhat satisfied to use them in angry moments. When we stub a toe or somebody truly annoys us, cursing appeases this frustration within. Swearing soothes the troubled souls, and therefore, people should be allowed to use these words if they so wish.  My last revelation regarding the third commandment came to me as I watched "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart". Sometimes we, as humans, utilize swearing as a mechanism for comedy. Some of Stewart's jokes are simply not as funny if he does not swear, for the very reaction that he conveys necessitates such language.

In weighing the pros against the cons of following this commandment, we need to interpret the law for ourselves, as is the case with many of the rules set in the Torah. Knowing that it makes certain people uncomfortable, we need to put ourselves in the context of a situation. Job interview, shaking the president's hand-bad times to swear. A joke on "The Daily Show"-not the worst time to swear. However, words that offend others and are used malicious, like the n-word, are never appropriate to orate, for when we use words for hate, they deserve censorship.  One needs to select their swears carefully. Follow this commandments with a sifter in mind. In my opinion, the commandment exceeds it original intent. Instead of teaching us how not to speak, it promotes humanity, as a whole, to think before they speak, an important skill for all of us to learn.