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The theme of physical beauty figures prominently in the book of Genesis, and specifically in the story of Joseph. We are told that the matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel were all "fair of form, and fair to look at", or "exceedingly beautiful to look at". Pointedly, Leah, the sister whom Yaakov did not want to marry, is not described in this way. Joseph, we are told, was also "fair of form, and fair to look at". In this week's parsha, we have a whole group of creatures about whom it is said they were "fair to look at", and I would, in fact, like to take a look at them.
The portion begins with Pharaoh's famous dreams. We are told that in his first dream he sees seven cows coming up from the Nile, "fair to look at and fat of flesh, and they grazed in the reed grass." Joseph, who is in Pharaoh's prison, will soon be called upon to interpret the dream, and will explain that these seven cows represent seven years of plenty. Rashi comments that the term "fair to look at" is a "sign of days of plenty, because then people look good to one another, as no being looks at his fellow with a begrudging eye" [literally "a narrow eye"]. In other words, the quality of being "fair to look at" is something present in our daily lives only during periods of prosperity; in difficult times, people are too upset, depressed, and jealous of one another, to actually see anyone as looking good.
The question to ask is why Rashi needs to share with us this insight about the social psychology of esthetics, rather than simply read the verse to mean that the cows looked good and were fat, which is clearly the way things are during a period of plenty. Why the roundabout bit about how the cows looking good hints at prosperity because people look good to each other during periods of prosperity, since, in favorable economic circumstances, no one looks jealously or begrudgingly at his fellow? Why not just say that cows look good when they have lots of food to eat?
It would seem that Rashi is bothered by the double language "fair to look at AND fat of flesh" - wouldn't "fat of flesh" alone have done the job, and communicated "plenty" to the dreamer? What does "fair to look at" add? Perhaps Rashi also feels that "fair to look at" indicates a level of aesthetic beauty, and an interaction between the object being looked at and the onlooker, which we normally do not ascribe to cows, and he therefore sees the phrase as really being about the way people look at and to one another. It is for these reasons that Rashi tells us that what we are told by the Torah in this verse is not so much that the cows looked good and that that symbolizes plenty, but, rather, that the cows looking good stands for the quality of people looking good, and THAT is a feature of a prosperity.
Now, this is an interesting bit of Rabbinic social psychology of esthetics, according to which people look good to us only when we have the economic space to see them as good looking. Esthetic appreciation of others begins with the well-being that prosperity and being well-fed gives us, without which we are "narrow-eyed", and unable to look at someone without jealously and selfishness getting in the way of our appreciating his or her beauty. In other words, we need to be receptive in a certain way in order to appreciate human physical beauty - we have to be able to view the person without jealousy, without begrudging them the beauty and good health that they have, but, rather, from a feeling that I, the onlooker, also have what I need, and am also healthy and in my own way beautiful.
The jealousy and selfishness which are naturally engendered by a famine, or other communal calamities, make it impossible to see other people in a positive light. Our ability to see the other is contingent on the situation that we, and our society, are in. When we are hungry, no one looks very good to us, our very eyes are effected by our difficult situation. This approach emphasizes the importance of a healthy social and economic situation for interpersonal relationships. One of the most basic elements in the way we relate to one another - how we look to each other - is subverted by the pressures engendered by poverty and want. Someone who is hungry and impoverished is not able to see the beauty in someone else - he is blinded by jealousy and want. If, thanks to economic prosperity, I can look without jealously at someone else, the possibility then exists for me to see that person as beautiful.
Rabbi Shimon Felix