Ugly Torah

“Matters of Torah are likened to three liquids: water, wine and milk. Why?”

BT Ta’anit 7a


This week we have been bombarded with images of ugliness and pain. Where it says in the Talmud that matters of Torah are likened to three liquids: water, wine and milk, this week we have to add tears to that list. Those sensitive to the Torah’s teachings about love and peace cannot help but weep at the bloodshed and violence in our beloved homeland. And yet, this particular teaching will strangely elevate ugliness.


The Talmud sage Rabbi Oshya asked why these three liquids have been compared to Torah and explained that since “these three liquids can be retained in only the ugliest of vessels, so too are matters of Torah retained only by one who is humble.”


The Talmud then illustrates this with a story that seems cruel but telling. The daughter of a Roman emperor said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya, “Woe to glorious wisdom – like yours – which is contained in an ugly vessel.” She, a princess surrounded by finery, was dumbstruck by the dissonance between the intellectual and spiritual expansiveness of this scholar and his appearance, which defied any Roman aesthetic she knew.


Rabbi Yehoshua did not defend his looks or comment on her rudeness. Instead, with expected wisdom, he asked her a simple question: “Does your father keep his wine in clay vessels?” She replied with an obvious yes since this was the norm. “You who are so important, should put it in vessels of gold and silver.” Just as these are expensive liquids, should their containers be of equal expense to showcase the status they bring.


The emperor’s daughter repeated the conversation to her father who proceeded to have the wine transferred. No expense was to be spared in the fulfilling his daughter’s request. It made sense to a person of influence and wealth to treat his wine with honor and dignity. Alas, the transferred wine all turned sour. The acid in the wine had a corrosive effect on the metal and impacted the taste. Clay is porous and contained none of the poisonous contaminants often found in ancient metal vessels. The experiment failed. The king was angry. “Who told you to do this?”


The emperor summoned Rabbi Yehoshua. We are not sure why a sage would have been discussing these matters with a princess, but now he was to be held accountable for the spoilage. When the emperor questioned him, Rabbi Yehoshua explained that the best material is preserved in the most humble of vessels because it retains its specialness this way. The emperor thought about his and questioned this assumption based on his own experience. “But there handsome people who are learned!” Many wise people are blessed with good lucks. But Rabbi Yehoshua was not buying it. They would be even more wise if they were not as beautiful, he retorted.


“Had they been ugly, they would have been even more learned!”


We often mistake beauty for intelligence, but that is not the prevailing issue here. While it’s true that Ethics of the Fathers says not to look at the holding vessel but what ‘s inside it, this admonition is for the one who looks.  Rabbi Yehoshua suggested that human beauty can be a distraction to its “owner” and minimize wisdom because beauty and humility rarely come in the same package.


Sister Wendy Beckett, an English nun in an order of silence who temporarily renounces her retreats to host art programs on the BBC, was interviewed by Bill Moyers about her incredible gift for art analysis. With buck-toothed charm, she confessed that not being beautiful herself has given her more capacity to appreciate beauty. She spoke matter-of-factly, not asking for pity or false encouragement but with a sadness for the rest of us that we fall too often for the illusion of beauty. “Grace is deceptive. Beauty is illusory” [Proverbs 31:30].


Things are not always as they seem. Perhaps something of beauty will come out of all of today’s ugliness. To be human is to believe that today’s anguish – however existentially exhausting and painfully repetitive – will one day be transformed. Beauty is illusory. But maybe ugliness is illusory too.


Shabbat Shalom