Moses was afraid – he was filled with awe and trepidation. His reaction? To hide his face. This shows us with perfect clarity that the appropriate reaction to being confronted by holiness is to “cover up”. Again, Moses’ reaction did not alter the holiness of God’s presence. The effect of Moses’ modesty was to preserve his own relationship with that which is holy.
If Moses’ experience wasn’t clear enough, there is the additional example that makes the necessity of modesty in the face of holiness very clear. In the first prophecy to Isaiah (6:3), Isaiah had a vision of the angels singing out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”
How did Isaiah describe these angels? “Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.”
Of the six wings of the angels, four were used to “cover up”. In the presence of Holiness, they cover up.
It is true for the angels, it is true for men and women, exposure trivializes, hiddenness elevates.
The glory of God is within hidden matter.
The idea of “hiddenness” seems to stand in diametric opposition to American culture. Read newspapers or magazines, view Internet blogs, and sites such as MySpace and it seems that no one cares why their names appear in these forums, whether for noble or ignoble behaviors, so long as their names appear.
It seems we simply want to be “out there.” We want to be noticed.
In a religious context, America is inundated with preachers who proclaim their relationship with God. Of course, these preachers do not come from a Jewish tradition. However, they offer a blatant image of a piety that is in opposition to the Jewish notion of piety or holiness. Some of these preachers claim as trophies the number of people they “have brought to the Lord”.
Numbers and ostentation determine their sense of piety. Theirs is a “quantifiable” holiness, it is based on numbers and statistics. This could never be the case for a Jew. In fact, the desire to call attention to one’s piety runs counter to fundamental Jewish tenets.
It is not the way a Jew conducts himself in the world.
The logic is clear. If modesty elevates and exposure trivializes and if we recognize that what is being elevated or trivialized is not the holy source that we stand in relation to but ourselves and the nature of that relationship, then modesty must necessarily be understood not just in the context of kedusha but also as a form of self-respect.
Secular social worker and psychologists seem to feel that it is this very concept – self-respect – which is at the root of the self-image difficulties America’s young people seem to struggle with.
What is self-respect after all? In Judaism, it is rooted in dignity. According to traditional Judaism, while there is nothing wrong (and many things to admire) about possessing riches, there is equally nothing “wrong” with not having money. In Judaism, money and riches are not the “currency” of dignity. How unlike the modern cultural dynamic which elevates the acquisition of money and things above all else?
Dignity does not require a “shout out.” It does not proclaim itself. It does not require “spin.” It does not have press agents. Indeed, dignity thrives in obscurity. How many midrashic tales and Jewish folk tales have as a main character the beggar who, in reality, is a messenger of God? And, almost always, it is a child who recognizes the true nature of this “beggar”.
What do these stories teach us? Obviously, they teach us a great many things. They graphically demonstrate that, in Jewish tradition, that which is vital is far removed from the surface, from that which is incessantly revealed. They also tell us that those with the eyes to recognize this truth are those who are “innocent”, who haven’t been inundated with the world’s notion of what accounts for “worth.”
Of course, in these stories, the beggar is never arrogant or mean. He is, in actuality, the perfect picture of humility. Through his example, we learn how one’s honor and dignity increase through tzniut.
Curiously, with the image of the beggar as a reference point, we begin to see what the proud, haughty person really is. Unlike the beggar, who’s dignity is the natural consequence of his inner strength and holiness, the haughty person has no meaningful inner self and so burdens himself with the encumbrances of wealth and honor. Of course, this wealth and honor is the wealth and honor that the world recognizes as such, not that God does. The haughty person would expect us to bow before his riches. His life is an open proclamation that, “I am somebody!”
If you doubt it, just ask him. He will repeat the assertion with ever greater insistence.
How sad it is for us when we discover that he is, in fact, nobody. That such a haughty, proud person has no sense of self. He has no self-respect and no self-dignity. Because of the absence of these worthy qualities, he is constantly trying to put himself “on display”, exposing himself in an effort to externally create what so obviously does not exist internally. How terribly sad it must be when that haughty person faces his own day of reckoning, when he must finally realize that for all his pretension he is nothing more than a hollow vessel. That which he has deemed worthy is, in truth, worthless. And that which he has called beautiful is ugly.
The proud and the haughty have no claim to honor which is, ironically, why they demand that they be honored! This is the fundamental contradiction of the proud. Sadly for them, it is impossible to construct honor from the outside in. No palatial surroundings, no suits of gold can pave the way for self-dignity. Theirs is a fool’s errand. Dignity and honor always come from the inside out – which I why true dignity must be so carefully protected and why it is so important to conceal the outward expressions of holiness.
Even the genuinely holy can be seduced by the appearance and trappings of holiness.
How much worse is it then for the proud, with their sense of self coming only from outward appearances? They have no choice but to display themselves and, so grossly exposed, they become trivialized. They can have no contact with that which is holy, which is our greatest hope and treasure.
What better example of this dynamic exists than that of the rich man who gives begrudgingly of his wealth and only to honor himself? Charity of this nature is the lowest form of charity. It occupies the lowest rung of Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity. The highest rung? That should come as no surprise. According to Maimonides, the highest form of charity is that which is Matan Beseter – given in private; which is given in a hidden way.
Why is this? Again, knowing that the world rests on three things, on the Torah, on works, and on giving of charity, the truth becomes obvious. By giving in an ostentatious manner, the giver is, by definition, claiming glory for himself. By giving in secret, the giver is strengthening (and protecting) his relationship with God.
To return to the “beggar” in our wonderful stories – according to the world of mere material things, he has “nothing” to give. Yet what is made abundantly clear in these stories is that the entire community is enriched by his presence. What he brings to the community is the dignity of holiness carefully preserved. His clothes do not call attention to his holiness.
Quite the opposite. It is as if he wants to avert inquiring eyes. He wants to protect the flame of holiness from the harsh winds of the world.
The glory of the beggar is mirrored in creation itself. For there, the budding of life is always hidden. The sprouting of a seed is done underground, away from the inquiring eyes of the world. Creation is holy. Its work is private work.
Like the budding seed, the soul must also be nurtured and created in private. This is what modesty allows for. This is part of what tzniut is.
Excerpted from Sometimes You ARE What You Wear! An Argument for Tzniut — Modesty — Second Edition 2010 by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran. To order, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com for $14 per softcover copy.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
Like this article?
Sign up for our Shabbat Shalom e-newsletter, a weekly roundup of inspirational thoughts, insight into current events, divrei torah, relationship advice, recipes and so much more!