The Ugly Duckling was Wrong

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A few years ago, my family moved into a new home. It had pretty much everything we wanted and a few extras to boot. My wife took up gardening, much to her delight. The only thing she didn’t particularly love was the tree in the front yard.

This is one weird-looking tree. It’s droopy, twisted, and it has a weird stalk growing out of it. It never bothered me per se but it’s certainly not a tree I would have chosen. Then, last summer, my wife had an epiphany: it’s a cherry tree. (She made this discovery when she noticed that cherries were growing on it. Who knew?)

This information was a game-changer. Now my wife actually liked the tree. (I remained fairly ambivalent but she’s the gardener in the family.) This year, when the month of Nisan rolled around, we took things one step further: now knowing that it’s a fruit-bearing tree, we were able to recite birkas ha’ilanos, the blessing over blossoming fruit trees, over the tree in our yard.

Now, this is quite a turnaround. We went from disdain for the tree to reciting a blessing over it, all because we realized that it was a cherry tree. This reminded me of something. Assuming that you read the title of this article, it should not surprise you that this thing was the tale of The Ugly Duckling.

The Ugly Duckling is a classic children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1843. In the tale, a random egg rolls into a duck’s nest and is hatched with all the others. This particular duckling, however, is ugly and misshapen, causing it to bear the scorn of all the other barnyard animals. Upon reaching maturity, he sees a flock of migrating swans and is shocked when they invite him to join them. Looking at his reflection in the water, the ugly ducking is surprised to learn that (spoiler warning!) he was actually a beautiful swan all along.

Ostensibly, the moral of this tale is not to judge others by their appearance. That seems to be a pretty good lesson, so why did I title this article “The Ugly Duckling was Wrong?” Because, upon reflection, that’s not really the lesson at all.

Think about all the “ugly duckling” storylines from sitcoms and rom-coms you may have seen. (This is the part where I cite examples from The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Breakfast Club and The Princess Diaries but, let’s face it, the trope is so ubiquitous that your own generation no doubt has its own copious pop-culture examples.) You know the routine: all the mousey girl has to do is take off her glasses and let down her hair and BAM! She’s suddenly the belle of the ball.

The problem with this is that the only reason we feel bad for snubbing Eva Grubb (on Gilligan’s Island) or whatever Anne Hathaway’s character was named in The Princess Diaries (that I can’t be bothered to Google) is because it turns out they were secretly conventionally pretty all along. In other words, we feel bad for accidentally taunting a swan, not because picking on an ugly duckling is inherently wrong.

I think traditional Jewish sources drive the lesson home somewhat better than Hans Christian Andersen and The Brady Bunch. In Pirkei Avos (4:20), we are taught, “Do not look at the container but at its contents. A new container can contain aged wine, while a vintage container might be completely empty.” In other words, appearances are deceiving; we must make an effort to determine what’s on the inside.

Along similar lines, the Talmud (Taanis 7a) recounts a dialogue between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah and the daughter of the emperor. The princess taunted Rabbi Yehoshua, saying that he was so ugly that he should not be permitted to house the Torah’s lofty wisdom. He replied that she was absolutely right and, based on this reasoning, perhaps she should have her father’s wine moved from ugly clay jars to jugs of gold and silver, more fitting of his station. This she did and, sure enough, the wine all turned sour. The lesson is clear: not only are superficial appearances unimportant, sometimes the one you think would be preferable is actually detrimental, while the one you might scorn is perfect for the job.

The lesson of The Ugly Duckling shouldn’t be that we feel bad for taunting a duck just because it turned out to be a swan; it should be that we never should have judged the duck in the first place. Our tree didn’t change; it was always a cherry tree. The fact that we didn’t know it was a flaw in us for never bothering to look into it.

Trees, ducklings, women wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah don’t need our validation. We need to stop imposing our preconceptions on horticulture, water fowl, and especially on other people. The way a person looks – including the color of his skin, the way he dresses, and more – tells you nothing. As the mishna in Avos tells us, we have to look at the content of a person’s character – for example, the way he treats others – before we really start to know anything about them.

We have no right to judge others, certainly not for superficial things, and others have no obligation to meet our preconceptions. If we stop expecting others to meet our arbitrary standards and instead look at their own individual merits, we may discover that there’s a lot more beauty in the world than we originally thought.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.