A story is told of a girl who turned to her friend and said, “I spend hours in front of the mirror admiring my beauty. Do you think that’s vanity?” The second girl said, “No, that’s not vanity. That’s imagination.”
But it is vanity. Every Friday night, when we sing the Aishet Chayil song, we say “Sheker ha’chen v’hevel ha’yofi,” that charm is deceptive and beauty is vain. As Torah Jews, we aspire to a higher ethos in which we value virtue and character above appearance and externalities. Throughout Sefer Breishit, we read about beauty in a very negative context, as chasing after beauty can easily lead one to sin. At the end of Parshat Breishit, we read how the children of God took whichever daughters of mankind they wanted because the latter “were good.” Sarah is very beautiful and she is taken forcibly by both the Egyptians and Avimelech. Chamor sees Dina and abducts her.
On Sukkot, however, we are commanded to take an item of beauty, an Etrog, which is defined as a pri etz hadar, a beautiful fruit. The Etrog must remain beautiful and if it becomes too dry then it is invalid. In fact, each of the four agricultural species that we take on Sukkot are rendered invalid as a result of this defect. They all must be full of life and beautiful like the objects of desire in Sefer Breishit. But what is so different here, is the way that we approach them. The holiday of Sukkot teaches us that an appreciation of beauty does not necessarily lead to desire and sin, but it can be utilized for a higher calling. On Sukkot, we seek out beauty in our ritual objects in order to inspire true Simcha, or happiness. After all, the Torah states that we should take the four species “u’semachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem shivat yamim,” and we will be happy before God, as it were, for seven days, as we thank God for the bounty that we enjoy.
But I wonder why the holiday of Sukkot contains a mitzvah that celebrates beauty. There already exists a general mitzvah based on the verse, “zeh Keli v’anvehu” – “this is My God and I will glorify Him.” The Gemara in Shabbat 133b explains that we observe this mandate by having a beautiful Sukkah, Shofar, Tzitzit and Sefer Torah. Why, then, is there a specific mitzvah of beauty with respect to the Etrog during the holiday of Sukkot? Why on Sukkot do beauty and aesthetics take center stage?
The challenge with beautiful things is that while it is natural to want and desire them, obsession with obtaining beautiful things can become a curse. How do we fight the desire for materialism, or the desire to have what material objects our neighbor has? How can we work on ourselves to truly be people who are semechim b’chelkenu, who are truly happy with our lot such that we don’t need the latest tech gadget, or car, or fancy clothing, or any item of beauty, in order to feel simcha?
Conventional wisdom tells us that owning things becomes important when we have an internal void. When our internal world feels lacking then it is natural to want to fill it with external things, but these things provide only temporary relief. We fill this void permanently with relationships, work, service to others, personal challenges and knowledge, and for men and women of faith, we also fill the void and make our internal world healthy with God. We realize that we aren’t the things that we own, that we are here to serve, that we are here for a higher purpose, and that our worth isn’t based on our money or possessions, but it’s based on our ethics, relationships, understanding and connection to God. And we realize that we can’t take our assets with us when we die, that our physical possessions are only temporary.
What better time to learn these values than during the holiday of Sukkot? Isn’t Sukkot the holiday that fights materialism, when we learn that this world is only temporary by leaving the shelter of our own homes to sensitize ourselves to this perspective? Sukkot is experienced as the holiday of hiddur, the holiday of beauty, when we experience how to truly use beauty in this world. Sukkot urges us to push past the material, and elevate our lives in service of God. The Etrog, and Sukkot for that matter, tell us that beauty is not a bad thing but that it is a means to an end. Used correctly, the beautiful objects of Sukkot teach us that while material beauty is fleeting, and excessive materialism will lead to sin, beauty used in the service God is a path to lasting fulfillment.
The holiday of Sukkot also provides us with the key to ensure that our appreciation of beauty doesn’t turn into excessive materialism. And that key is gratitude. There is no holiday that is centered around gratitude more than Sukkot. Sukkot is the holiday of “zman simchatenu.” It’s the holiday of happiness, when we celebrate and express gratitude for our bounty, our material success from the previous year after gathering in all the crops and it’s the holiday when, according to the Vilna Gaon, we celebrated the chance to build the mishkan, a home for God.
The real antidote to excessive materialism is gratitude for what we have been given. Many studies have demonstrated that fostering gratitude for the things and people in our lives is one of the strongest antidotes to materialism. I read articles about parents who prepare for their children a gratitude jar or a gratitude journal where the children write down on a daily or weekly basis that for which they are grateful. The older the children get, they write less about the toys they received, but they write more about being grateful for being loved, for having a home, friends, food, and the like. They start to forget about all the stuff that is advertised on TV, on billboards, or on social media, that we feel we must have. The more we appreciate what we already have, the more we combat that dangerous urge which has seeped into even our orthodox Jewish community, that urge for excessive materialism and consumption. Only then can we actually learn how to utilize the beauty in this world that God has provided for us.
The next time we hold up an Etrog, let us recognize the beauty of the Etrog. Let us also realize the central role that beauty plays in this holiday, how this holiday teaches us to appreciate the aesthetic for how it can elevate us, and to ensure that our appreciation for beauty doesn’t translate into excessive materialism. The answer is twofold: first, realize that we can’t take it with us, and second, live gratefully.