Beauty and Danger
The rose and the thorn, and sorrow and gladness are linked together. -Sa’di
Romantic sentiment gets limited attention in the Bible, but it is there, and the rose takes its place in Biblical literature as a romanticized metaphor for beauty just as it does in more modern times. This essay continues the series inspired by Mr. Egbert Pijfers, based on the artwork of fine artist Nira Spitz. The painting in question is a deceptively simple water color of a vase of roses.
Deceptive, because one would think it child’s play to capture the image of an inanimate object on a table in a room. Nonetheless, the artist, in her characteristic brilliance, subtly brings to life this object that carries millennia of symbolism. The wall, table and vase are common enough, and the artist renders them in a sturdy yet amorphous fashion. They are the foundation, the backdrop and our eyes note them, register them, they give reality to the painting, assure us that we are in the presence of an experienced master and then draw our attention, frame the main event – the roses.
The roses appear as they would in real life, with their geometric dispersion, their positioning relative to one another, the angle of the flower to the stem, the interplay of shadow and light upon their petals. However, what the artist does, what brings out the genius of her art is the texture she adds to the roses. In real life, or in a photograph, we would not sense the variation in colors, we would not pick up the spectrum of reds that are the canvas of the rose, we would be blind to the dynamic mix of light, shadow, angle, position, depth and rich texture that the artist reveals. They are as flowers from another dimension, another world, some mystical realm, some king’s garden from antiquity. By focusing so intently on the minute nuances of the petals, normally invisible to the eye, we finally see the rose for what it truly is. A live, vibrant, deep ecosystem that arrests our senses on multiple levels.
Hence the age-long infatuation of mankind and specifically its womenfolk with the rose. It is no coincidence that through multiple cultures, continents and civilizations, the rose has held a special place in the universal language of romance, and continues to do so until this day.
Perhaps the most famous mention of roses in the Bible is in King Solomon’s Song of Songs, an ancient love poem filled with passionate, longing, descriptive lines of the pursuit and adoration of one lover for another. Biblical commentators read more deeply into the Song of Songs and interpret it as symbolizing the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.
“As the rose amongst the thorns, so is my love amongst the maidens.” Song of Songs 2:2
While in literature the rose often stands out from other flowers, and the comparisons are then of subjective beauty between different flowers, in King Solomon’s Song, the comparison is more heavily lopsided. It is a stark comparison to compare a rose to its thorns. To confuse matters further, we realize that a rose is typically inseparable from its thorns. The thorns are part and parcel of the rose. There is beauty, but it is accompanied by danger – and if one is not careful – pain.
The theme of beauty, danger and pain is one that surfaces in multiple ways and times throughout Biblical and Talmudic literature.
We see this theme in the very beginning of the Bible, in the Garden of Eden. Eve, the prime woman, knows of the danger of eating the forbidden fruit, but it is beautiful to her. She lets the beauty of the fruit overcome the warning. She ignores the danger. She and Adam and the snake are all punished, all are cursed with different sentences of pain for daring to partake of the beauty.
Sarah, the first Matriarch is described as exceedingly beautiful. Abraham, her husband, upon entering hostile territory, realizes the danger this can bring him. Two different monarchs on two different occasions take Sarah for themselves and then discover the danger and the pain of taking a prohibited beauty.
Jacob is attracted to the beautiful Rachel. He misses the subterfuge of his soon-to-be father-in-law, Laban, and unknowingly (!?) marries the less attractive sister, Leah, and then marries his sweetheart Rachel as well. The ensuing rivalry caused by his affection for the beautiful sister creates a schism between the tribes of Israel that some say we are still suffering from almost 4,000 years later. The danger and the pain were very real.
There are many more examples that play upon this theme throughout Jewish literature. The question though is, what do we learn from this? Should we avoid or be wary of beauty? Is there safety in the mundane, in the plain? Why are we so attracted to “beauty” however we define it, and why is it so often dangerous.
If we return to King Solomon’s Song, there is pain, longing and hardship throughout the relationship – that is life, he is telling us. Beauty makes the pain more poignant, the longing harsher, the drama more intense. Beauty is that intersection of perception, memory, imagination and fantasy, where the senses are excited and are given pleasure by what they perceive. It is the symmetry, elegance, simplicity, complexity, that ephemeral quality that may be either universal or which no two people will agree upon.
The fact that beauty may be evoked by something as random as the geometric pattern of organic matter, by the refraction of its photons upon our iris, by the feelings these visual cues engender, is something that we at once take for granted yet barely comprehend. The instinctive, visceral reactions may be both unexpected and uncontrollable. Is that what we must fear? Is the danger in the non-rationality that beauty threatens to instigate?
In her excellent book (now a film as well), Divergent, Veronica Roth imagines a future where taking such thinking to its logical extreme, an entire faction of the population rejects anything that might distinguish one person from another, anything that might seem to beautify one person over another. They shun makeup and elaborate hair arrangements and they all adopt the exact same drab grey uniforms.
Their premise is that “Abnegation” (as they call themselves) can save humanity from warfare. Is that the path that man must choose to achieve peace and serenity? Is beauty so dangerous that it threatens our existence?
No. But it’s fun to consider.
As in many other themes throughout the Bible and the Talmud – the middle road, the golden path, a healthy balance is the solution. There are common agreements as to beauty, and then there are individual tastes. Beauty is a quality that humans appreciate and engender positive feelings within their soul. We are instructed in multiple places, especially in matters of worship and divine service, to seek the beautiful, to construct the beautiful, to make use of the beautiful, to surround ourselves with the beautiful.
The High Priest is commanded to wear clothing that is beautiful and there is a very specific design that the Torah has in mind. Synagogues are meant to be beautiful. All the articles and furnishing of the Tabernacle and subsequently the Temple are beautiful, golden and enhance the space. We are instructed to wear our beautiful garments for the Sabbath. A husband is obliged to buy his wife beautiful garments for the holidays. The Rabbis have encouraged us to seek beauty for the rituals and articles of Jewish life: beautiful covers for the Torah scrolls, beautiful mezuzah cases (the small scroll that goes on the doorpost), beautiful ketubot (marriage contracts), beautiful candlesticks, beautiful wine cups and much more. However, their beauty is always harnessed in service of the divine, the holy.
In Judaism, the beautiful is appreciated, but it must be balanced with whatever other values may be competing or are at stake, and hence some of the inherent danger.
When beauty becomes an end in and of itself; when beauty becomes a priority; when beauty becomes an overarching obsession, outweighing all other considerations, then we enter the province of danger and ultimately pain. Beauty enhances our experiences – but it must be moderated to the purpose it is part of. It is a means – it is never an end.
Perhaps that is the message of the rose. Appreciate it. Handle it if you will. But embrace it gingerly, tenderly. Your touch should be cautious, careful. For should you grasp it fully, should you dare to hold beauty with all your might – your hands will be filled with blood.
‘Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.
I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.
So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?
The Last Rose of Summer by Thomas Moore