Chayyei Sarah: A Modest(y) Proposal

Why do Jewish brides veil their faces? In this week’s Torah Portion, Chayyei Sarah, Rebecca, who has never met Isaac, agrees to travel to his home and marry him.  When she first sees him from afar, she takes her veil and covers herself.  (Gen. 25:65).  This biblical story is the source of our “bedecken” wedding veil ritual. 

But why did she do it?  Our sages explain that it was her modesty, which they extol as a great virtue.  Does this suggest that Rebecca was shy or lacked self-esteem?  From what we know of her from other passages, she was neither.  When she suffered during her pregnancy with the twins Jacob and Esau, she confronted G-d to ask why.  Later in life, she thwarted her husband’s intention to give the birthright to Esau.  She was obviously no subservient wallflower – but even so, she was modest.

 “Female modesty” is a highly contentious issue these days, in large part because its enforcement can be and is used to maintain social, political, and sexual power.   But these abuses should not make us lose sight of the importance that Judaism places on modesty for everyone, male and female.  The Talmud is full of praise for rabbis who were modest in every aspect of their behavior. Modesty is not what Judaism expects of just women; it expects modesty of everyone.

So, what does it mean to be modest?  According to my dictionary, “modest” means having or showing a moderate estimation of one’s own talents, abilities, and value …. having a regard for decencies of behavior or dress …. being moderate in behavior … and lacking pretentiousness. 

Modesty is a value that reflects good character and respect for others.   Yet, we see immodest conduct all around us, as people compete to call attention to themselves, and to their products and services, while demonstrating disregard for the sensitivities and courtesies that should characterize human interaction. 

According to Derech Eretz Zuta: an ethical guide in the Babylonian Talmud:

“A disciple of the wise should be modest at eating, at drinking, at bathing, at anointing himself, at putting on his sandals; in his walking, in dress, in the sound of his voice, in the disposal of his spittle, even in his good deeds. A bride, while still in her father’s house, acts so modestly that when she leaves it her very presence proclaims: ‘Whoever knows of anything to testify against me, let him come and testify.’ Likewise, a disciple of the wise should be so modest in his actions that his ways proclaim what he is.”

Note that this passage refers equally to male and female modesty.

My modest proposal this Shabbat is that, each evening before we retire, we review our behavior and consider: Were we appropriately modest today?  Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should have been quiet or inconspicuous, but it does mean that we should have tried for respectful behavior.  What did we say, and how, when, and to whom did we say it?  What did we wear to work, to socialize, to synagogue?  How did we drive?  Where did we use our cell phones? How did we treat others in meetings, in the street, and in private.  What kind of example did we set for those who observed us – especially, any children?

Each day brings us opportunities to build the character trait of modesty in ourselves and to encourage it in others.  Each day, let’s try to make a “modest” difference!

Shabbat shalom, many blessings, and thanks for reading this! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb