I am beginning to believe that every once in a while, Hashem gives mankind another chance. Although He remains basically hidden in the world, G-d occasionally reminds us, “I am here. Pay attention.”
Science recently had another such opportunity and missed it. Again. When I noticed the name of the title article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine article last week (January 13, 2019), I thought, “The evolutionists are doing teshuvah”: “Beauty and the Beasts: How the extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom is prompting scientists to rethink evolution.” I must admit that I got excited. They are seeing the light, I foolishly hoped. However, the insane stubbornness of the religion of evolution has triumphed over reason once again.
Amidst page after page depicting the “incandescent beauty” of Hashem’s creations, a prominent science writer, Ferris Jabr, cites a number of major biologists and evolutionary ornithologists who have concluded that the astonishing beauty of the plant and animal world cannot be explained by evolution. Apparently, even Charles Darwin himself did not think that his theory of natural selection could explain the elegance and exquisite loveliness of the world. Although he obviously defended his prized new view of the world, he admitted that “he never claimed that it could explain everything.” However, when recently faced with overwhelming evidence that beauty is not merely a function of biology or attraction in the animal world’s courting process, the scientists started “rewriting the standard explanation for how beauty evolves” and “are also changing the way we think about evolution itself.” Instead of waking up to a Creator, they “believe there are other forces at work,” seeking to salvage as much they can of their slowly decaying theory of evolution. Several of the most prominent scientists have already written entire books about these “other forces.” Richard Prum published a major tome entitled “The Evolution of Beauty,” Michel Ryan wrote “A Taste for the Beautiful,” and notable others have searched for an explanation for the role beauty plays in the universe.
Mr. Jabr describes the bower built by the male bowerbird as “an optical illusion known as ‘forced perspective’ that humans did not perfect until the fifteenth century.” Even the jaded writer admits that the result of the bird’s labors with one beak is “a total work of art,” yet cannot explain its need biologically or in evolutionary terms. In fact, he asks the question, “What is the evolutionary justification for the bowerbird’s ostentatious display?” and admits that “this extravagance is also an affront to the rules of natural selection.”
Even Darwin apparently admitted that “as all our most gorgeous birds, some fishes, reptiles and mammals, and a host of magnificently colored butterflies have been rendered beautiful for beauty’s sake.”
So what does the Torah have to say about beauty in the world? What is its purpose and why is it even a factor in the world?
Allow me, please, a moment of contrasting strolls to illustrate. The author of the Times article records an enlightening trip he took with Professor Prum of Yale University to Hammonasset State Park, near New Haven. Here, in a 900-acre section of Long Island Sound, Dr. Prum “was calling out the names of birds he glimpsed or heard through the car window.” Even before they were parked, the excited scientist, who was looking for a particular species, a hooded warbler, identified “an osprey, purple martin and red-winged blackbird.” When Mr. Jabr asked his host “how he was able to recognize birds so quickly and at such a great distance, he said it was just as effortless as recognizing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.” Jabr made a mental note that “in Prum’s mind, every bird is famous.” Since we are now learning Perek Eilu Treifos in Daf Yomi, I could not help but think of the exacting knowledge of Chazal about each bird and animal. But more importantly, I recalled a series of walks I was privileged to take long ago.
When I was in my teens living in East Flatbush in the 1960s, a number of us had the zechus of walking Rav Avigdor Miller home from shul. The gardens in those days were very meager, the front yards not exactly Westbury Gardens, let alone Hammonasset State Park. But in the early spring, at the first flowering of a lonely rose, Rav Miller would stop on East 49th Street to lecture us about the miracles of chlorophyll, photosynthesis, and which rose had four sepals and which rose had five sepals. I’m pretty sure we learned more biology on those walks than with our science teacher in class. But of one thing I am certain. Rav Miller ingrained in us forever that the Ribono Shel Olam gave us all the tremendous gift of a beautiful world so that we could enjoy His world and see His Hand in every one of His creatures. He pointed out that Hashem could have made a monochromatic world, where everything would have been a boring black or white, perhaps with a hint of grey. But Hashem wanted us to appreciate and enjoy His universe, so He added color.
When I got a bit older, I learned the Gemara (Brachos 58b) which states that there is a special brocha to recite over Hashem’s beautiful creations. The Maharal (Chiddushei Aggados, Chulin 59b-60b) explains that “beauty in the world reflects the G-dliness in every creature, which was brought about purposely by the Creator.”
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch in several places (Bereishis 2:9, 4:22, 6:2, 39:6) also sees the harmony in nature as reflecting the spiritual nature of the world.
Rav Yeruchom Levovitz (Daas Torah, Bereishis, page 150) raises the issue of why the Torah would praise our imahos as being beautiful. “Surely,” he demands, “if beauty were only skin deep, this would be a shallow trait indeed… However, the truth is that genuine beauty reflects the spiritual aspect of a person as much as the physical.”
To adapt an idea of Rav Yonasan David, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok (Maamorei Chanukah 15:5), as long as the beauty of Yovon remains subjugated to the authority of “the tents of Sheim” (Bereishis 10:27), it retains some validity (see Megillah 9b), but when it takes on a life of its own, it can wreak havoc and destruction.
In truth, most recite this concept every leil Shabbos in Aishes Chayil: “Grace is false and beauty vain; a woman who fears Hashem, she should be praised” (Mishlei 31:30). Manifestly, the Torah is reminding us that mere physical beauty should not be praised, but in conjunction with inner and spiritual beauty it has its place. The Gemara (Brachos 57b) stresses this about all physical possessions, which can “broaden a person’s mind” when placed in their proper perspective. In fact, as we learned from last week’s sedra (Shemos 15:2), there is a special commandment to beautify the mitzvos we do (Shabbos 133b). The Brisker Rov (to the Rambam, Hilchos Chanukah 4:31) cites a disagreement amongst Rishonim if this can be accomplished only when actually performing a mitzvah or if it can be added later. Either way, it is clear that the concept of beauty must be seen only in the context of fulfilling the Divine Will. This is obviously a far cry from those who see beauty as some sort of accident of nature, to be enjoyed perhaps but never associated with a divine purpose. For all of us, however, who see every phenomenon in the world, especially the care and concern with which the Creator made His world, the discovery of beauty everywhere we go should be another reason to praise Hashem at every opportunity. Indeed, every trip with children – and even just adults – should become a teaching moment to enjoy and praise the Hashem for the beautiful universe which He has given us.