Parashat Hayeh-Sarah: The Dangers of Vanity
The opening verse of Parashat Hayeh-Sara tells us that our matriarch Sara lived for "one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years." This is an unusual way of telling us how long Sara lived, as rather than simply stating that Sara’s life spanned 127 years, the Torah speaks of three different units of time – one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years.
Rashi explains that the Torah presents the number this way to allude to the fact that Sara’s life was consistent. She was free of sin at 100 years old just as she was when she was 20, Rashi writes, and she was as beautiful at 20 as she was when she was 7.
Many later commentators noted the difficulty in the second segment of Rashi’s comment, where he writes that Sara’s beauty at age 20 equaled her beauty at age 7. The implication of this remark is that normally, a twenty-year-old woman is less beautiful than a seven-year-old girl, and Sara was unique in featuring the same beauty at age 20 that she had at age 7. Of course, we normally think of twenty-year-old women as being far more beautiful than seven-year-old girls. Why, then, does Rashi imply that a girl is usually more beautiful at age 7 than at age 20?
The answer, apparently, is that Rashi refers here not to the beauty pf physical appearance, but rather to the beauty of innocence. Twenty-year-olds are far more prone to paying an inordinate amount of attention to their appearance than seven-year-olds are. Unlike many twenty-year-olds, seven -year-old girls do not generally spend a long time in front of the mirror before leaving the house, and do not fuss over their clothes. They can enjoy life without feeling pressured about their physical appearance, without the vain obsession over their looks. Rashi here is telling us that although Sara was an exceedingly beautiful woman, as the Torah itself mentions, nevertheless, she was not vain. She was not preoccupied with her looks. Even at age 20, the age when women tend to pay a great deal of attention to their appearance, she had the beautiful innocence of a seven-year-old, and was not overly preoccupied with her looks.
This insight is especially relevant today, when, unfortunately, many even within our religious communities are preoccupied with vanity. Too many young women feel undue pressure to appear beautiful, and oftentimes, it is their parents who apply this pressure. The Torah does not frown upon beauty – indeed, Sara, Ribka and Rahel are all described as having been very beautiful – and it is certainly important to look presentable. However, there is a huge difference between ensuring to look presentable and preoccupation with one’s looks. The bulk of our attention should be focused on our inner selves, not our outer appearance. What we are inside is infinitely more important than the way we look outside. We need to redirect our priorities away from vanity and towards the truly significant areas of life.
It is no secret that vanity poses serious dangers. Girls and women who feel inordinate pressure to have the perfect appearance develop low self-esteem and insecurity as they helplessly compete against other girls and women. And tragically, many develop very dangerous eating disorders in their frantic attempt to look good. We must be extremely careful in the way we speak and think about physical appearance, and see to it that physical beauty is never given higher priority than the beauty of character. As with most things in life, we need to apply common sense and moderation, ensuring to look respectable as befitting Torah Jews, without paying excessive attention to external beauty.