Over 70 per cent of teenagers are not happy with how they look and that statistic is growing.
When did looks become such a focus in our society? It was a culture sparked by Greek values which stood in opposition to Torah values, but its attraction was almost irresistible.
They placed the body and external image at the core and Jews began to assimilate at an alarming rate.
We learned the Greek language, studied Greek philosophy and played Greek sports. Many took Greek names and this resulted in the battle of Chanukah – essentially it could be argued, a battle between beauty and holiness.
It is Shabbat Chanukah and a time when I often pause and question this concept of beauty. Is beauty a Torah value? What is its place in our world, the Jewish world?
We find the answer in this week’s parsha, Mikketz. Beauty as the Torah understands it comes from something hidden beneath the surface that cannot easily be seen.
This week we see the climax of the Joseph story. We watch him rise to power in Egypt, saving the Egyptians from famine, while raising his own status among new people.
The Torah’s comments on Joseph’s physical appearance are interesting: “Joseph was handsome and of fine appearance.” [Genesis 39:6]
This comment is not made when Joseph was young or when he is introduced in the text. Rather, it appears only after Joseph has endured the ridicule of his brothers, sale and enslavement.
The simple understanding is that the information is conveyed to explain why he attracts the attention of Potiphar’s wife; in other words, it is mentioned where Joseph’s physical appearance becomes relevant for the first time.
But for me there is a deeper meaning to reference Joseph’s beauty. What is the source of Joseph’s good looks? His inner strength, which lies beneath his exterior.
The last person the Torah described as possessing beautiful looks was his mother Rachel.
The Midrash teaches us that “Rachel was beautiful, and of fine appearance.” Therefore Joseph was handsome. [Midrash Rabba 86]
The beauty and greatness of Rachel is her ability to sacrifice her personal needs and desires for the sake of her sister. Joseph displays this same trait.
For example, when the opportunity arises for him to contact his father, as a result of his self-sacrifice he chooses not to.
Joseph was a dreamer, a visionary, an interpreter of dreams and saw that which his brothers could not.
He dedicated his life to others; he was a provider and delivered himself a sentence of loneliness, in order that others would have the chance to be redeemed. He was truly beautiful, just like his mother.
In Jewish tradition, the candle’s flame symbolically represents the human soul and serves as a reminder of the transitory nature and beauty of life.
Like a human soul, flames must breathe, change, grow, strive against the darkness, and, ultimately, fade away.
Comprised of a body and soul, the beauty we seek as people is one in which our bodies radiate our spiritual essence and acts as a prism which reflects our inner world.
Our souls are the light of this world. They infuse spirituality into the body, and the world of materialism. We are all, each and every one of us a beacon of light.
If one small candle can illuminate a dark room, imagine what millions of small lights can do to our world.
We all have a responsibility to positively affect the world and by doing so pass the torch to the next generation still lit, so that they can radiate it even brighter and stronger.
This week as we light our Chanukah and Shabbat candles we bring that beacon of light, encouragement, direction back into this world together.
Yes, our environment plays a role in our spiritual growth, as do our families, society and many other aspects in our lives, but like Joseph we can choose to use these factors as stepping stones to try and reach higher levels of our potential.
The road isn’t always straight, often we are tested, but as we watch our Chanukah lights glow and Shabbat candles flicker we should remind ourselves of the hidden beauty within us, as this week’s parsha elucidates.
Please God we should allow it to fuel our own personal light, our souls shine into this world and break the darkness that so often surrounds us.
Lisa Levene is the Rebbetzen of Belmont United Synagogue