True Beauty

Vayehi ka’asher hikriv lavo Mitzraymah, vayomer el Sarai ishto, “Hinei na yadati ki ishah yefas mareh at” (Bereishis 12:11).

Due to a famine in the land of Canaan, Avraham and Sarah decided to travel to Egypt. As they approached the border between the two countries, Avraham saw Sarah’s reflection in a river and became aware of her beauty, and he began to fear that the Egyptians would want to marry her and would kill him in order to do so. Why was Avraham unaware of Sarah’s attractive appearance until this time? Rashi explains that due to his tremendous level of personal modesty, Avraham had never looked at Sarah before this incident and was oblivious to her good looks.

The Maharsha (Bava Basra 16a) points out that this episode is difficult to understand, for the Gemara in Kiddushin (41a) rules that it is forbidden for a man to marry a woman until he has looked at her so as to ensure that she will find favor in his eyes, and the Gemara in Yoma (28b) teaches that Avraham observed the entire Torah even though it had not yet been given. If so, how was he permitted to marry Sarah without ever looking at her?

Harav Mordechai Jofen, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Beis Yosef in Brooklyn and Harav Nissan Kaplan of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim suggest that Avraham certainly fulfilled the Gemara’s requirement to look at Sarah at the time of their marriage, and he was well aware that she was beautiful. If so, what changed at this time, and why did Avraham suddenly become concerned about the Egyptians when he was not afraid of them at the time they set out on their journey?

They explain that although Avraham recognized his wife’s pulchritude at the time of their marriage, he believed that it emanated from her sublime spiritual purity. Thus, he wasn’t worried about the Egyptians attempting to take Sarah away from him because he assumed that they would view her through their crude physical lenses, which would prevent them from discerning her true inner splendor. However, as they approached the border, Avraham noticed Sarah’s reflection in the water, which merely serves as a mirror of the external and is incapable of capturing inner spiritual beauty. When Avraham saw that Sarah’s charm and appeal remained unchanged when displayed in the water, he realized that she also possessed great physical beauty and therefore grew concerned that the Egyptians would be interested in taking her for themselves.

Extending this insight, Rav Jofen and Rav Kaplan suggest that when people who are dating insist upon seeing pictures of prospective shidduchim, they are frequently doing themselves a disservice. There are many young men and women who radiate an inner spiritual purity when seen in real life but, like the water, the camera is incapable of capturing this appeal. This often leads to people rejecting potentially suitable marriage partners to whom they could have felt drawn had they only given themselves the opportunity to meet them in real life, instead of emulating the Egyptians by focusing solely on external appearances.

Q: Rashi writes (Bereishis 12:5) that when setting out for the land of Canaan, Avraham and Sarah took with them the people they had converted during their time in Charan. Why don’t we find any mention of them continuing to make converts after they left Charan?

A: The Mishmeres Ariel points out that when the time came to seek a spouse for Yitzchak, Avraham insisted (24:3-4) that Eliezer not choose a wife from among their Canaanite neighbors, but rather from Avraham’s original homeland in Charan. He cites the Kli Yakar, who explains that although the people of Charan also worshipped idols, Avraham knew that, at their, core their character traits were wholesome. Since unethical behavior originates in one’s essence and can be passed on genetically, the Canaanites were disqualified from marrying into Avraham’s family. On the other hand, matters of belief are taught, not inherited, so the idolatrous beliefs in Charan could be remedied by educating them to belief in Hashem. In light of this explanation, the Mishmeres Ariel suggests that Avraham only sought out prospective converts in Charan but not in other locations, where the improper character traits of the people ran counter to the essence of the Torah. However, the Midrash teaches that Avraham did in fact convert people in other locations.

Q: Why didn’t Avraham make a festive meal to celebrate his circumcision and that of his son Yishmael as he did on the day of Yitzchak’s circumcision (21:8)?

A: Harav Meir Soloveitchik quotes the opinion of the Shu”t Ohr Ne’elam (9), who maintains that the concept of making a festive meal to celebrate a bris milah that was not performed in its proper time on the eighth day has no Talmudic source and may not include meat and wine if such a meal occurs during the week of Tishah B’Av. Although normative practice is not in accordance with this opinion, he suggests that Avraham only made a meal in honor of the circumcision of Yitzchak, which was done on the eighth day, but not for himself and Yishmael, who were much older. However, the Chavatzeles Hasharon notes that several opinions maintain that Avraham’s circumcision was considered as being performed in its proper time since it was done on the day that he was commanded to do so, in which case this could not be the reason why he refrained from making a celebratory meal in honor of the occasion.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email