Inner and Outer Packaging
One afternoon my son brought a small toy home for his baby sister after a doctor’s visit. Unable to contain her excitement, she reached for the toy, which was wrapped in a small plastic box.
Well, what do you know? My baby took one look at the toy and tossed it aside! She was more interested in the packaging than the toy itself. Even when my son insisted that she hold the toy, placing it back in her hand, she immediately threw it behind her and reached for the box again. She could not get past the packaging.
It was humorous, but it got me thinking about perspective and illusion. A child doesn’t have the understanding to realize there is more behind the outer appearance of something or someone.
Yet as adults, I have found we are often guilty of the same. We focus on the exterior of others to a proportionately greater degree over what is inside someone—their values, their character, their sense of righteousness, their soul.
As a speaker, how I present myself on the outside has a huge impact on the audience’s willingness to accept my message. We all make snap judgments unconsciously because of the disproportionate value our society places on materialism and external beauty.
This is particularly pertinent—and poignant—in the dating world. A student of mine in her thirties recently complained about the superficiality of men today, claiming they only want to date supermodels, rejecting anyone else. She continued to explain that it was important to her to find someone who would love her for who she was on the inside. I respected her sentiments.
A few days later, something interesting happened; she called complaining about a candidate the dating website had sent her. “Sarah! He’s forty, bald, and overweight! Can you believe it?” She exclaimed.
I had to gently remind her of her earlier concerns, that we can’t be so quick to judge.
When it comes to our “packaging,” we expect others to tear straight through our “wrapping.” Yet, we too have trouble seeing past the external. As much as we would like to think that most of the time we do see beyond someone’s exterior, it seems to trip up even the best of us.
Seeing my daughter’s and student’s inability to see past outer appearances got me thinking about modesty. Modesty is a character trait that is obligated equally by men and women that helps us reflect our G-dliness, our inner soul. In other words, it is about using discretion to reflect our neshamah.
I am not simply referring to clothing, because modesty encompasses every facet of our lives. Everything from the way we communicate, to how we conduct our daily activities can be guided by modesty.
We can practice modesty in three distinct ways: seeing the inner beauty of others, guiding others to see our inner selves, and seeing the inner beauty of the life G-d provides us.
Seeing the Inner Beauty of Others
A truly modest person works not only to allow their inner essence to shine but also works to see the penimi’ut of others.
I was at the Santa Monica pier with my family when my children spotted Elmo waving and urging tourists to take a picture with him. By the end of the scorching hot day, it seemed that Elmo needed a breather from his stuffy costume. He took his large Elmo head off and began to wipe his brow. To my surprise, the person underneath the mask was not a “him,” but an elderly woman! I had made assumptions about this person based on the outer costume.
Modesty means humbling oneself enough not to judge others’ outsides or the life they have chosen for themselves. When we are free from judgment towards others, it enables the person before us to be at ease with us and their authentic self. When we judge others, they can feel it, and they may not be forthcoming; instead, they may continue to wear their mask for self-preservation.
Eventually, all packaging withers, while the soul of a person is eternal. A sign of maturity and wisdom is a person who acts not as my baby did, but with the ability to pause and look deeper. Odds are, you’ll find something much more worthwhile!
Guiding Others to See Our Inner Selves
I was preparing a class about modesty when my daughter brought home a painting she created of a “camel.” (I put “camel” in quotations because it needed some interpretation.)
It was on a canvas that was the size of a 4” x 6” file card. I put it in a small Ikea frame and added it to our wall gallery.
Imagine if I had placed her 4” x 6” painting in a huge frame that took up the space of the wall. The artwork would become secondary and almost invisible.
A frame must be proportional and appropriate. The Ikea frame that is perfectly acceptable for my children’s art would not be acceptable for a masterpiece by Van Gogh. It would be a disgrace!
Ideally, the frame and the painting should compliment one another. That is the body soul relationship. To the onlooker, we appear to be all body, but there is a beautiful neshamah inside that can shine if we allow it to.
Modesty is tempering one’s exterior so that people are forced to look inside. The exterior neither outshines nor understates our interior. Modesty is using discretion with our words and actions, which in turn causes others to see more of us than just our outsides.
Seeing the Inner Beauty of Our Lives
Hashem, too, is an artist; He has created a beautiful tapestry-like masterpiece called the world. From His vantage point, everything aligns perfectly, and the work of art is quite spectacular. Each woven thread begins and ends with purpose to create an overall image that “makes sense.”
From the earth below, we see the backside of the tapestry—which has many knots and bumps. We can see fragments of a beautiful image, but it doesn’t always look perfect or even seem logical.
Being modest means being humble enough to surrender ourselves to G-d’s trajectory for us. We might not always agree with this trajectory, we might often feel powerless over it, but there is always beauty and an inner lesson to gain from life’s experiences, good or bad. This requires looking inward, seeing beyond the appearance of something on the outside.
A friend of mine whose husband passed away said, “Years later, I am still dealing with acceptance. Sometimes I look around me and think, is this really my life? Sometimes I have to dig deep inside to see the beauty that is all around me.”
Modesty is a multifaceted mitzvah and requires tremendous humility and perspective. The irony of my daughter only wanting to play with the outer wrapping of her toy is that more often than not, it is what comes from within that is our greatest gift. With humility, we find the inner light of others, we come to know who they really are, and in return, they get to see our own inner beauty. Once we understand this, we appreciate the intangible greatness within our own lives.