The first time as an adult that I saw a face like hers was on an El Al plane, four decades later. I recognized that distinctive look, and leaned across the aisle. "Were you burned?" I asked, hoping an explicit question would be less insulting than furtive glances.
"Yes," he replied, unfazed by my curiosity and turning to me his monstrous mask. He could have been in his early twenties, or late thirties. The hand on the armrest, which I tried not to look at, was missing fingers. The thumb was a stump. "When I was a soldier in Lebanon."
It was the instant transformation of that young man's face -- the way his smile suddenly revealed the person within -- that brought my adopted sister to mind.
Disfigured from head to toe by burns inflicted by the Hiroshima Bomb, she'd been brought to the United States for plastic surgery, in a project organized by my father.
It was the1950s and I was a child of five, gazing up into the mirror at Shigeko -- then in her twenties -- as she gave one hundred strokes of the brush to her long black hair. Disfigured from head to toe by burns inflicted by the Hiroshima Bomb, she'd been brought to the United States for plastic surgery, in a project organized by my father. She and 24 other young Japanese women had been placed with American families for the duration of their medical treatment, and Shigeko was with us, in our Connecticut suburb.
She hadn't been in our house very long, but for me, the scars which had embarrassed me when she first arrived were no longer so apparent. No longer did the sight of her mangled fingers make me avert my eyes; nor did her face appear as a strangely horrific object of shiny, discolored skin being pulled this way and that over half-erased features.
She was just Shigeko, and I loved her.
Her eyes were black, shining, and alive -- as they are today -- and I can still see their frank expression as suddenly, in the mirror, they met mine. There were a few long seconds, then she said, "When I 15 I lose everything beautiful the body."
I stiffened, ashamed. What suffering had I ever known?
"Fifteen that age girls want most being beautiful, yes?"
I couldn't even manage a nod, and besides, such things weren't on my mind yet. I wasn't sure what she was talking about.
"From 15 I know I have to get love for who I am person. The spiritual!"
To my relief the moment passed. But given the fact that those words were seared ineradicably into my memory... given the fact that when her skin-grafting operations were over, she stayed on and became part of our family...wouldn't it be reasonable to expect her presence to have liberated me, then and there, from American culture's myopic obsession with physical beauty? Shouldn't I have understood, early on in childhood, that real love always arises in response to something other than evenly spaced features and a smooth complexion?
Were it only so! Such is the power of our Hellenistic equation of personal worth with physical attractiveness -- combined with the universal modern-day tendency to see ourselves as who I am body! -- that even the terrifying enlightenment bestowed by the living lesson of Shigeko couldn't expunge my inborn female vanity. I, like multitudes of other people down through history, have had to contend with vanity's vast power to trivialize our existence. Oh, to retrieve for some higher purpose all those countless hours squandered in search of the maddeningly elusive goal, the creation of a pretty face!
Even the Talmud tells of a young woman's ghost, hovering over her grave and beseeching a visitor to the cemetery: "Tell my mother to bring me my comb and mascara stick!"
Rashi's comment is that having died young, the girl missed her comb. The first time I heard that story, it struck fear into my heart. Did this mean that whatever was on my mind today would be on my mind for eternity? It seemed like a good definition of Gehinnom [Hell].
One recent winter evening, seated at my desk, I happened to glance over at the lampshade just as a housefly landed on the translucent white fabric, and was about to shoo it away with a flick of my wrist when my ordinary habits of perception, caught off-guard, were suspended for a few moments. The dirty, germ-laden housefly, whose presence I abhorred, was illuminated from behind, and transformed.
Parked on the lampshade a few inches away was a tiny perpetual-motion creature straight out of science-fiction, with hugely outsize round eyes glowing like emerald-green jewels; the multi-jointed busy back-legs planted firmly upon the white light, as delicately weightless as black thread, and all their black hairs a-quiver as the exquisite forelegs, like busy tiny hands, were cleaning, cleaning, cleaning: cleaning his face, like a tiny man in a speeded-up film, scrupulously, meticulously wiping his hands after a tasty supper, silver wings beating as invisibly as a hummingbird's in stationary flight. He was a fabulously magical, unworldly, hairy little machine, mathematically precise and perfect and elegant in his every teeny-tiny detail, a thousand times too fast and complicated and intricate to follow. He was grooming himself, grooming himself, grooming himself. Then with a buzz he flew away.
Where was the housefly I was about to swat?
A few days later, a ragged-looking orange cat out by the garbage bins caught my eye as she groomed herself, licking toes and ears and tail.
Grooming, grooming, grooming. Like the housefly and the cat, we have been instilled with this instinct by our Creator but like any other facet of our personalities, it's up to us to channel the impulse, to voluntarily impose a limit on the amount of time and thought we accord it during our brief sojourn here on earth. We needn't get rid of the grooming instinct, but do have to exert control if we're not to be controlled. Like every other good thing, it has the power to draw us closer to the Almighty or God forbid, farther away. It can help us to fulfill our life-mission, or eventually take up so much room in our thoughts that we'll be missing it in the grave.
The Midrash teaches that all human souls were fashioned on the day the world was created, in the precise form and image they assume when they descend to earth. We know without being told, of course, that the Divine Image doesn't refer to anything physical…that we're most human when we're most divine. But to live accordingly is a daily victory.
Thank God for aging! What a clever system! For as we "lose everything beautiful the body," we're forced finally to celebrate: It's the love in a face that makes it beautiful. It's by emulating God's love that we'll find the love we're seeking, and in imitating our Creator that we become ourselves.
This article originally appeared in © Mishpacha Magazine 2004