Rabbi Daniel Stein
Rabbi Daniel Stein

There is Nothing More Beautiful Than Serving Hashem Be'Tznius

At the outset of their relationship, Hashem communicated with Moshe outdoors and in public, first at the burning bush and then later in Mitzrayim. However, the pasuk states that subsequently, "Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai from within the Ohel Moed" (Bamidbar 1:1). The Medrash Rabba (Bamidbar 1:3) comments that following the construction of the Mishkan, Hashem only spoke to Moshe from within the Ohel Moed, for Hashem typically prefers to operate discreetly and indoors as it says, "walk modestly with your God" (Micha 6:8), and it is for this reason that Hashem is described in general as a "God who conceals Himself," (Yeshaya 45:15). A similar transition occurred in connection with the giving of the Torah. The Medrash Tanchuma (Ki Sisa 31) claims that the first set of luchos were broken precisely because they arrived amidst great attention and fanfare which leads the Medrash to conclude that "there is nothing more beautiful than tznius." In order to protect the second set of luchos from a similar fate, Moshe was instructed to fashion them while alone and in private as the pasuk says, "carve for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones" (Shemos 34:1).

The value of being removed from the public eye is further supported by the Gemara (Bava Metzia 42a) which comments that, "blessings can only exist regarding objects that are concealed." Moreover, the Gemara (Sukkah 49b and Moed Katan 16a) asserts, that even those events which are generally held in public, such as a wedding, funeral, or even teaching Torah, should nonetheless be conducted with the greatest degree of discretion possible. The expansive range and scope of these comments indicates that the imperative to conduct ourselves privately and with tznius is not limited to our wardrobe choices or modes of attire, but rather encompasses all of our interactions and indeed defines our very way of life.[1] This is underscored by the manner in which Balak praises the Jewish People, "How good are your tents, Yaakov" (Bamidbar 24:5), referring to the arrangement of their tents which opened in opposite directions in order to prevent one from peering into the home of another.

The central message of tznius is illuminated by the Maharal (Nesivos Olam) who writes that the meaning and significance of an object or event which is open to the public and exposed in plain sight is limited to that which can be observed and is on display. Conversely, an item which is hidden and concealed suggests that it possesses greater depth and therefore should not be judged superficially. This is comparable to the tip of an iceberg whose spire protrudes above the water but at the same time hints that its true girth and might resides beneath the surface. For this reason, while the Mishkan was in transit, Bnei Yisrael were commanded to cover the furniture and utensils, "so that they not go inside and witness the dismantling of the Sanctuary lest they die" (Bamidbar 4:20). Rav Sternbuch (Taam V'daas) explains that the pieces of the Mishkan were wrapped and concealed deliberately in order to convey to any potential spectators that the ultimate purpose of the Mishkan and its utensils were beyond their grasp and all human understanding.

Given the general emphasis on tznius and privacy it is not surprising, that the holiest items and places within the Mishkan were guarded by numerous coverings and layers designed to protect its contents and restrict access. This notion is punctuated by the avodah of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur which was performed entirely in solitude, as the pasuk states, "nobody else shall be in the Ohel Moed until he comes out" (Vayikra 16:17). Additionally, Moshe was commanded at Har Sinai to ascend the mountain by himself and to instruct the rest of the nation to remain behind for "nobody else shall come up with you, and nobody else shall be seen anywhere on the mountain" (Shemos 34:3). The Degel Machaneh Efraim (Matos) derives from these instances that intense spiritual experiences can only materialize while one is secluded, removed from all societal limitations and expectations. Perhaps, the Mishnah (Avos 2:5) which states, "in the place where there is no man strive to be a man," can also be interpreted creatively, "strive to be a man who serves Hashem like he is in a place where there are no other men." Therefore, Rav Tzadok Hakohen (Tzidkos Hatzaddik) writes that even when davening together with the rest of the community, one should attempt to imagine as if he is conversing privately with Hashem.

However, if the quiet and understated nature which accompanied the second set of luchos is ideal, why were the first set of luchos introduced with such pomp and circumstance in the first place? The Sfas Emes (Ki Sisa) deduces that public performances are occasionally necessary in order to initially infuse an endeavor with a certain measure of excitement and enthusiasm which can only be generated by a large and impressive gathering. For this reason, we occasionally applaud the accomplishments of young children in public and celebrate their milestones together with the community. However, as a child matures and develops it is critical that we instill within them the belief that "there is nothing more beautiful than tznius." They must be taught that their lives and actions are inherently consequential in the eyes of Hashem even if it is not "commented" upon by others or "liked" by someone else. We have to convince them, that from the perspective of Yiddishkeit, the more something is concealed the more valuable it is, and the more an activity or accomplishment is publicized the less special it becomes, not the reverse.

Similarly, the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Kesubos 1:17) claims that the glass which is broken at a wedding by the chosson is an allusion to the shevrias haluchos. Rav Soloveitchik (cited in Divrei Harav pg. 229) suggests that this symbol serves as a reminder to the chosson and kallah that the public nature of their relationship at the time of their wedding is not sustainable, just like the first set of luchos. Over time, as their relationship deepens and matures their home should evolve from a chuppah where the entire community is invited to watch, into a sealed domain whose entrance is obscured from its neighbors. The coronavirus pandemic which has confined us to our houses has also refocused our attention on the concept of tznius and the importance of cultivating a private relationship with Hashem. Whenever we emerge from this predicament and are able to reconvene as a community, (it should hopefully be soon and in good health), we should travel forth with this same orientation and mindset, to continue to walk modestly with Hashem at all times, for there is nothing more beautiful and beneficial than tznius.

[1] See Rav Hershel Schachter, Eretz Hatzvi (pg. 96) and Can Women Be Rabbis?.

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