What is modesty? Why is it an important trait?
A principal source for modesty in the Torah are a set of laws pertaining to the army camp. The Torah teaches that even in the camp, we must maintain standards of cleanliness and modesty. “When you go out in a military camp against your enemies, avoid everything evil.” Impure soldiers must bathe. Lavatories are set up outside the camp. Soldiers must carry a shovel to cover their feces.
“Because God is present in the midst of your camp... therefore your camp must be holy” (Deut. 23:10-15).
Rav Kook explains his views on modesty when discussing a peculiar case mentioned in the Talmud:
“It once happened that a man married a woman with a stumped arm, yet he did not notice this until the day of her death. Rabbi [Yehudah] observed, ‘How modest this woman must have been, that even her husband did not discover this!'
Rabbi Hiyya responded, ‘For her, it was natural [to wish to hide this defect]. But how modest was this man, that he did not scrutinize his wife!'” (Shabbat 53b)
When we see beauty, our faculty of imagination is refined and elevated. This is a basis for our intellectual powers, enabling the soul to absorb that which is intellectually and morally beautiful.
Images of ugliness, on the other hand, disturb the soul’s natural qualities. Such images unsettle the imagination and obscure our awareness of God’s Presence.
In truth, all of God’s works are noble and beautiful. In the complete reality, nothing is ugly. All comes from the source of Tiferet, Netzach, and Hod. If we were able to grasp all of reality, all of God’s creation, from the beginning of time to the end — we would see everything in its proper place. Everything would project majesty and nobility.
But we only perceive a thin sliver of reality. Therefore we see a vast difference between beauty and ugliness. Not everything that we perceive awakens feelings of nobility. On the contrary, many images generate horror and disgust.
We need to nurture our souls with ‘food’ which is good for it and extend its grasp of goodness and happiness. We must be careful when relating to our surroundings so that we will only see those images which will have a positive influence, while avoiding base and lowly images which darken the soul.
This principle is true for both sensory phenomena and intellectual matters.1 The ugliness is not intrinsic, but due to our fragmented perception of reality. This is the function of modesty — to absorb that which is revealed to us as beautiful and proper, and avoid that which appears to be ugly and chaotic.
Since nothing is truly ugly and repulsive, we are instructed to cover and hide — but not that it should completely absent. Covering leads us to the desired goal, allowing us to perceive the beauty in what we see and what we contemplate.
There are two aspects of modesty. The first is the attempt to hide that which is ugly and disturbs our sense of beauty. In the Talmudic tale, this is the modesty of the wife.
The second form of modesty relates to our control over our sight — allowing the eye to see only that which agrees with the quality of beauty and nobility. This, in the story, is the modesty of the husband.
When one avoids the display of ugliness due to personal motives, such modesty could bring about disappointment. It may be successful in providing protection from such images, but it is not the deeper quality of modesty which comes from an inner trait in the soul. The highest level is rooted in the essence of nobility and majesty, when one naturally avoids ugliness, whether in what one perceives or in what one contemplates.
When modesty is not an integral part of nature, it usually cannot maintain its effectiveness over time. Rabbi Yehudah was thus amazed at the modesty of the woman, whose husband never discovered her disability.
But the depth of modesty, the inner trait which sees only that which is elevated and beneficial, not due to some external motivation, rises above all evil and imperfection. This is the innately modest individual who cleaves to the very source of modesty out of a love of nobility and goodness. He will not sense that which is odious or repulsive. It will not cross his vision, even if physically close. His soul assesses those in his immediate surroundings according to their complete and true reality, according to a comprehensive awareness which embraces infinite realms and transcends physical limitations. This was Rabbi Hiyya’s amazement, “How modest is this man who never saw a defect in his wife.”
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 18-19 on Shabbat 53b)
1 For example, theories on the origin of man and the cosmos could confuse one into looking at life as random and meaningless. (Others, on the other hand, could see in the same theories signs of a finely-tuned and orderly universe of Divine design.)