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Category: The Blessed Home

Made According to His Will

Tags:  complaints, covetousness, flesh, image, inward, outward, self-esteem

Tikvah Michael

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. (Psalm 139:14-15)

I often hear women complain about the blessing which traditional Judaism prescribes for men to pray in the morning. It says, "Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who did not make me a woman." That seems sexist. It's hard for a woman to read that in the Siddur and not feel like the sages who wrote it must have hated women.

The explanation is that a man is supposed to be grateful that God did not make him female only because more commandments are incumbent upon men than upon women. That gives men more opportunities to serve God. If he had been born a woman, he would be required to keep fewer commandments. From that perspective, the blessing is not really a sexist statement at all.

That's the explanation, but it seems to me that there is still a hint of misogyny in the negative formulation of the blessing. If a man is simply grateful for being male, why doesn't the Siddur have him bless God saying, "Who has made me a man"? Why say, "Who has not made me a woman"?

Judged by modern standards, the sages were definitely chauvinistic. It's no secret that the Talmud often speaks about women in unflattering language. But when considered by the standards of their day, the ancient rabbis seem to have had a high view of women. Judaism offered women in the classical world more dignity and respect than they found in common Roman society.

Actually, I am not concerned about whether or not the rabbis who composed the blessings were sexist. The blessing "who has not made me a woman" does not bother me, because I never pray it. Instead, I pray the prescribed blessing for women, "Who has made me according to His will." To me, this is one of the most beautiful prayers that a person could ever pray.

Body-Image and Self-Esteem

It's sometimes hard for us as women to pray that and mean it. Insecurity and femininity seem to be related. From a very early age, girls become image-conscious. We begin to compare our physical features with those of our friends and schoolmates. We become painfully aware of our deficiencies. We begin to notice when the boys don't notice us. The cutting words of other children who deprecate us remain with us for the rest of our lives. People say that beauty is only skin deep, but the truth is that the pain of a low self-image goes all the way down to the soul.

That pain plays out in women's lives in all sorts of unpleasant ways. We have all known women who have allowed themselves to be swept into wrong relationships and to be used by men of low character. The reason can often be traced back to a woman's fear that she is unlovable, and so she seeks to prove to herself that someone--anyone--can find her attractive and show her affection. The popularity of immodest dress is another indication that women find their sense of value in their physical allure. Why else would a woman wear clothing that fails to adequately cover her unless she was hoping to turn heads and prove something to herself? Dangerous neurosis sometimes develops around a woman's sense of body-image. That's why we see women suffering with anorexia and bulimia. That's why we see our friends addicted to the latest fashions and spending obscene amounts on clothing. That's why so many women in our society even go to the extremes of cosmetic surgery.

Body-image is a societal obsession. The media recognizes that "sexiness" sells products, and so every aspect of our culture is soaked in sexual allure. Women's bodies are used to sell cars, clothing, beer, music, movies, and just about everything else. Whether consciously or unconsciously, a girl in today's world cannot help but absorb the message that her value is measured in her physical beauty.

Society's values, however, are not the kingdom's values. The apostle John warns us that we are not to become fixated on the material world or to prize the things that the material world prizes:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world--the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions--is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

According to this passage, the world values "the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions." But all of those things are only temporary illusions, fading flowers, like "the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven" (Matthew 6:30). We need to find our identities in something more permanent and to invest our lives in something with better returns.

A Bad Investment

When you think about it, placing our sense of self-worth on our physical allure is a sure way to lose. Imagine if you had a broker who offered you an opportunity to buy into a stock that was on the market, and he told you, "In twenty years, this stock will be worth half its current value, in thirty-five years, a third its current value, and in fifty years, it will be almost completely worthless." Who would buy a stock like that? It would be completely irrational to invest in something that was guaranteed to depreciate in value. But isn't that what we do when we value ourselves according to our physical attractiveness? "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain" (Proverbs 31:30); the "flower falls, and its beauty perishes" (James 1:11).

I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with trying to look pretty or dressing well. We should indeed do our best to look our best; after all, we represent the kingdom of heaven; we are daughters of the king; and with that comes a responsibility to present ourselves with dignity. But it is certainly wrong to allow ourselves to resent God for the way that he has made us.

A Complaint against God

When we think of ourselves as "ugly" or deficient, we are complaining against our maker. In the Psalms, King David speaks of how God formed us and knit us together before we were born. He says that we are fearfully and wonderfully made:

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. (Psalm 139:13-15)

It may be an old cliché, but "God doesn't make junk." Every one of his creations is a perfect and beautiful part of his universe. We are all the handiwork of the same God who set the stars like jewels in the heavens.

The Talmud> tells a story to illustrate the point. Rabbi Eleazar the son of Rabbi Shimon was travelling home on his donkey after having spent the day studying. He was feeling proud of himself because he had learned so much Torah that day. He came upon an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him saying, "Shalom Aleichem." Rather than return the man's greeting, Rabbi Eleazar replied, "Raca! How ugly you are! Are all the people from your town as ugly as you are?" The man replied, "I don't know if they are or not. But why don't you go and tell the craftsman who made me, 'How ugly is the vessel which you have made.'" Rabbi Eleazar realized how wrong his words had been. He dismounted and prostrated himself before the man asking for his forgiveness. The man replied, "I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and tell him, 'How ugly is the vessel which you have made.'"1

The lesson of this story seems simple: We should not insult another person or criticize someone because of their appearance, because to do so is to criticize God. But the same rule applies to us when we face the bathroom mirror. We need to learn to see the beauty of God's creation even in our own bodies. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

The story of the Talmud> also teaches us about how to deflect the hurtful words that others might have lodged against us. Why is it that it is so easy to forget the good things of life, but the unkind words of other people stay lodged in our minds forever? When we recall the taunts of school children, the insults of insensitive people, and the feelings of rejection we have accumulated over life, we need to remember that those taunts, insults, and rejections were actually directed against God.

Hidden Person of the Heart

The worldly person looks at the outside of things. The kingdom person looks at the inside. Our Master says that we should clean the inside of the cup so that the outside will be clean as well. We must learn to look at others and ourselves with eyes of HaShem.

When Samuel went to anoint a new king over Israel, he assumed that Jesse's oldest son must be the chosen one because he was tall, strong, and handsome. God told the prophet, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature ... For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

The eyes of the flesh see only the flesh. The eyes of HaShem see the inner soul. This is why the Bible tells us not to pin our self-esteem on physical beauty. Instead, our beauty should be displayed in "the hidden person of the heart":

Do not let your adorning be external--the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing--but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves. (1 Peter 3:3-5)

Contrary to this teaching from Peter, it seems that most women, even believers, continue to try to package their sense of self-worth in externals. Let's not misunderstand: The apostle is not saying that braided hair, jewelry, or tasteful clothing are sinful or wrong. Again, we are daughters of the king, and we should be mindful of our appearance. But our true concern should be with the beauty that comes from the "hidden person of the heart."

What is the "hidden person of the heart"? This is the beautiful soul that resides within us. In God's sight, this inner beauty is "very precious." It is the beauty of the bride of Messiah; the bridegroom offered his own life to ransom her.

The Jar of Clay

Inside every human being is a beautiful soul, a spark of HaShem. That is why we pray, "My God, the soul that you placed in me is pure."2 Our bodies are only an outer shell. As the Apostle Paul says, "We have this treasure in jars of clay" (2 Corinthians 4:7). The physical body is simply a container for an inner essence which is unspeakably beautiful and precious. Our physical bodies are temples of God's Spirit. Therefore, we are to glorify God with our bodies:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

It is hard to glorify God in our bodies when we dislike our own bodies. So long as we are trapped in self-criticism over our physical appearance, we prove that we are only living in the flesh. The spiritual person looks with spiritual eyes.

God's Mistake?

Worse than the simple "defects" that a woman usually perceives about her own appearance, many people are born with difficult handicaps or even physical deformities. People who must struggle with such issues have little sympathy for the ungrateful person who, though born whole, feels bitter about her physical appearance.

The Gospels tell us that once Yeshua and his disciples saw a man who had been born blind. His disciples asked him why this man had been born blind. Yeshua replied that the man had been born blind "that the works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9:3). Even in our imperfections, the perfection of God is displayed.

Imagine being born blind or mute or deaf. We would think that a person who was born blind or deaf or mute would have the right to say, "God didn't know what he was doing when he made me." Does God make mistakes? He answers, "Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?" (Exodus 4:11). Part of the life of faith is coming to terms with the way that God has made us. Not only must we learn to be content in that, but we need to learn to be grateful.

Covetousness

When we look at another woman and say, "Oh how I wish I had been born with attractive features like her," we are engaging in the sin of covetousness. We are coveting something that belongs to someone else.

The same principle also applies to our place in the people of God. In the Messianic movement, I often meet Gentiles, both men and women, who seem to want to hide the fact that they are Gentiles. These brothers and sisters do everything that they can to appear Jewish. They try to find a Jewish ancestor or some other claim to Israelite heritage. They sometimes seek a path of legal conversion. I have even heard some Gentiles fake a Brooklyn accent to sound more "Jewish." This always reminds me of when Paul says, "Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called" (1 Corinthians 7:20). That means that if God has made you a Gentile you should be a Gentile for Messiah. If God has made you Jewish, you should be a Jew for Messiah. We are one body with different parts. God, who looks on the heart, says, "a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God" (Romans 2:29). If only we could learn to value the praise that comes from God above the praise that comes from men.

A woman's sense of inadequacy goes further than just her physical attributes. The habit of comparing ourselves to others to see how we measure up and of coveting what others have has devastating consequences in several areas of our lives: It leads to a constant battle with self-esteem and jealousy, and it makes it difficult to connect with our sisters in faith because we constantly feel as if we are in competition with them.

It's easy for a stay-at-home mom to feel intimidated by the career woman who seems to have it all. It's easy for the career woman to feel intimidated by the stay-at-home mom who seems to have the "perfect" domestic situation. Homeschool mothers are constantly comparing their children's school progress with one another. The typical homeschooling mother feels overwhelmed when she learns that the Johnson family did a unit study on flora and fauna on the Galapagos Islands while her own children were studying how to make cupcakes. As women, we silently compare our clothing to that of others. When we visit the homes of our friends, we make private comparisons between their households and our own. The constant compare-and-contrast game stems from our learned patterns of comparing ourselves with others to gain a sense of value.

According to His Will

Every woman needs to come to the place where she is able to see that she is made according to God's perfect plan for her and her soul. Has God made you beautiful? Are you a "head-turner?" Then be humble and grateful and use your beauty to glorify God, not to puff up your ego, fuel your self-esteem, or turn heads. Remember that beauty is fleeting, and the same God that made you so attractive might just as easily have made you otherwise. Be grateful that God has made you the way that he has made you, but don't pin your identity on the flesh.

Are you struggling with your self-image? Do you feel homely and unattractive? Then remember that a daughter of God does not find her identity in the physical. What they say is true: Beauty really is only skin deep. A daughter of God finds her identity in Messiah. Your true beauty is the radiant life of Messiah that shines through you. Adorn your soul with mitzvot, and let the imperishable beauty of the hidden person of your heart be your glamour and allure.

We should ask ourselves, "Which is more important? What do I value more? The way that other people see me, or the way that God sees me?" Everyone would probably answer that the way God sees us is more important. But when we go through life self-conscious about our physical features, we prove to ourselves that we are more concerned about how we appear in the eyes of men than we are about how we appear in the eyes of God. According to the Bible, the inner-beauty of my soul is precious in God's sight. So why should I be so concerned about how people see my outside?

When we come to the place where we can thank God for making us the way he made us, then we find peace not only with God, but with ourselves. That's why I think the traditional blessing that the Siddur prescribes for women is so perfect:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשַֽׂנִי כִּרְצוֹנוֹ
Baruch attah ADONAI eloheinu melech ha'olam, she'asani kirtzono>.
Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who has made me according to His will.

Actually, this would be a good blessing for men to pray as well. It's too bad that the Siddur does not prescribe this blessing for both genders. I don't know what particular physical insecurities beset the male gender or how those insecurities play out in their lives, but I am sure that men struggle with many of the same types of issues. We are all human beings. So I feel sorry for men, because, at least concerning this blessing in the morning prayers, they are actually getting shorted. While they are thanking God for not having made them women, we have the daily privilege of thanking God for making us according to his beautiful and perfect will.

Endnotes

1. b.Taanit >20a-b.
2. Elohai Neshamah>, morning blessings.

Adapted from Messiah Journal #101. © 2012 First Fruits of Zion. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share this material with your friends for further personal study. However, this material may not be republished, in print, electronically, or any other form without our prior permission.

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