The Concept of Modesty (Part III)

In three places in the Torah we find a particular concern with modesty. Firstly,
the mishkan: It was covered with three layers of material, including a veil in front
and a train in back, like a bride. In this context, modesty certainly cannot mean
the covering of something dirty or evil; the mishkan was a beautiful and holy thing.

Rather, the idea is that the mishkan was an atonement for the
Golden Calf. The Golden Calf was also beautiful, but the problem was that people
substituted it for G-d. Now G-d said: “Go and build a tabernacle. If you get carried
away with the gold and silver in there, it’s also idolatry, and nothing’s changed.
Before you were worshipping a cow, now you’re worshipping a building.” The building
itself is only worthwhile insofar as it enables G-d to dwell in this world. The
externals were therefore covered, in order to draw attention away from them, that
the essence could stand forth. That’s tsnius.

Talmidei Chachamim have to be especially modest in their dress,
their eating, speech, everything. The idea is the following: One of the rabbis used
to teach that the word es had the same meaning throughout the Torah. He said
that the word es always signifies something secondary to the main subject
of the verse. In Bereishis bara Elokim es hashamayim v’es ha’aretz, it refers
to all those things that are secondary to heaven and earth. Regarding an ox condemned
for goring a human being, it says, lo yeachel es b’saro, one is not allowed
to eat of its flesh, which means that you can’t benefit from its skin, which is
secondary to the flesh. Kabed es avicha v’ess imecha, honor your father and
your mother. Why the es? Because you have to honor your older siblings, too.

But when he came to es HaShem Elokecha tirah-you shall
fear G-d-he stopped. What could possibly be deserving of a fear and awe comparable
to G-d? He announced that he had been mistaken. He told his students: “I regret
making all those drashos. Forget them!”

Until Rabbi Akiva came along. He said that Torah scholars are
included in that es. One should stand in awe and fear of them.

Why didn’t he think of that? The answer is: It depends on what
you’re looking for. If you get carried away with the Torah scholar and revere him
as a personality, like another media star, then you are guilty of border-line idolatry.
It’s only the Torah he represents that one should stand in awe of. For that reason,
a talmid chacham has to be modest; he has to conceal his outward presence
more than other people. It is the Torah that should impress, not the personality.

And the Torah requires modesty of women. Nor is this requirement
in any sense a degradation, any more than it is in relation to the mishkan and
talmidei chachamim. On the contrary, women are in good company.

In the eyes of the nations of the world, women are objects; their
main value is external. No matter how much they protest and say the opposite, look
at how they use women to sell cars and cigarettes. That is the secular perception
of women.

The Torah looks at women in a totally different way. Women are
the epitome of kedushah; that which is holiest is the Jewish woman. As a wife, as
a mother. Devorah was a prophetess, a judge, a warrior, the leader of her generation.
How did she praise herself? Ad shekamti Devorah, ad shekamti eim b’Yisrael.
I arose the mother of the Jewish people. There are a lot of bad jokes about the
Jewish mother, but from this verse you see that the Jewish mother is paramount.
The Midrash says that everything depends on the woman. The spiritual direction of
the home depends on her. The Gemorah says that the promise of the world to come
that was given to women is greater than to men! Any woman who complains that the
Torah treats women as second-class citizens is totally mistaken.

That’s why the rabbis say that the honor of the daughter of the
king is that which is within. That doesn’t mean that a woman can’t attain honor
for things she does in the public sphere. But what she can do out there can never
match what she can accomplish as the daughter of the King. Whatever else she may
be, her greatest honor is in being the King’s daughter. The greatest thing a woman
can have is the inner holiness with which G-d invested her.

Fourth and concluding part next week