In Hebrew the phrase hadur mitzvah, means the beautification of a mitzvah. The concept is linked in the Torah with the holiday of Sukkot and the command to take a “fruit from a beautiful tree” -“pri eitz hadar” (Leviticus 23:40). The sages of the Talmud (Sukkah 35a) will identify that fruit specifically with the etrog, the citron. In preparation for Sukkoth, pious Jews will inspect with meticulous care an array of etrogs in order to choose the most beautiful specimen. This emphasis on needing to fulfill a Biblical command with an aesthetic appeal carried over to placing a beautiful container on doors for the parchment of the mezuzah, drinking the kiddush wine from a silver chalice, placing flowers on the Shabbat table, and having a talit, a prayer shawl, of fine fabric. Likewise, the Torah goes into great details as to the gold work and the fine tapestries of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert, and the multicolored clothing of the high priest. What we value we invest in to make extra beautiful.
In my own home, my most prized possessions are not necessarily the most valuable on eBay. Rather they are souvenirs of places that I have been, which evoke prized memories of relationships. I have a shelf in my office of rocks picked up during my world travels, ranging from the slopes of the Himalayas to a construction site in Brooklyn. Similarly, I collect shells from beaches, preferring those specimens that bear evidence of the sea, such as misshapen barnacles or a spiral shell weathered to naturally look like a flower. But not all my chachkas, mementos, are found objects. My wife and I also have purchased some fine art work, preferring to buy from an artist that we have met or a place we have been as an additional layer of identification with the beauty that adorns our home. An art work, a song, or a movie at its best evokes surprise and wonder, and an enduring lens with which to experience the familiar in an unfamiliar way and to remember the beauty of another moment.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in the 20th century regarding appreciation, “There are two primary ways in which man relates himself to the world that surround him: manipulation and appreciation. In the first way he sees in what surrounds him things to be handled, forces to be managed, objects to be put to use. In the second way he sees in what surrounds him things to be acknowledged, understood, valued or admired.”
Human creations at their best reveal enormous talent. I held my breath in wonder as NASA’s Mars’ golf-cart-sized space probe recently touched down with precision in timing and location having traversed over seven months and 300 million miles. Examining Picasso’s preparatory sketches of Guernica, his protest against war, revealed the brilliance of his distillation of forms to convey horror. And yet, I am most in awe of that which is regularly before me. Each evening if I pause to focus, the sunset takes my breath away. As magnificent as human creations, the wonder of nature endures as a source of marvel, gratitude and beauty.
In that light, a closing mention of the only other time that the Torah uses hadar: “v’hadarta p’nei zaken- “and you shall beautify the face of the aged” (Leviticus 19:32). In Judaism, beauty is associated with old age and more the cultivation of relationships, pointing to our collective opportunity to elicit the best in others as essential beauty-making. Each of us is a partner-artist when we evoke beauty in the face of another.