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The Importance of External Appearance

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“…Joseph was seventeen years old, was a Shepherd with his brothers by flock, and he was a Na’ar (young lad) with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah…” (Genesis Chapter 37 Verse 2)

Our sages find it strange that Joseph was referred to as a Na’ar (young lad) at the age of seventeen years old. The term Na’ar (young lad) usually refers to someone much younger. Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabba which states that his behavior was similar to that of a young lad. He acted immaturely and would dress his hair and adorn his eyes to look handsome.

This depiction of Joseph as an immature young lad obsessing over his appearance is difficult to understand. Our sages teach us that all the spiritual teachings that Jacob received from Isaac, Abraham and other spiritual teachers of the day were passed on to Joseph. According to the commentary of Onkelos, Jacob loved him because he was the wisest of all his brothers. He was clearly a very spiritually advanced individual at a very young age. If this is the case, why is Joseph so concerned about his external appearance? Additionally, the verse indicates that he was more meticulous about his appearance in his interaction with the sons of Bilah and Zilpah. Why was he more meticulous around them?

Our sages explain that one of Joseph’s criticisms of his brothers was that he felt the sons of Leah did not treat the maidservants’ (Bilah and Zilpah) children in a respectful fashion. Joseph therefore befriended them and tried to uplift them spiritually. I believe this to be the reason that Joseph behaved ‘immaturely’ and paid so much attention to his external appearance. He understood that when it comes to impacting others (even towards spirituality) physical appearance makes a difference. A person is more likely to be influenced and affected by a person who presents themselves well rather than by a person with a sloppy appearance.

As human beings seeing beautiful and pleasant things makes an impact upon us. In a similar vein, our sages teach that one should dwell in a beautiful home because the beauty expands a person’s consciousness enabling the service of God in a more profound way. However, it should be noted that beautiful external appearances are a means to an end and not an end in themselves. When externality becomes the goal, all real spiritual value is lost. Let us use and enhance the beauty of the physical world to advance the spiritual growth of ourselves and others.