There was once a wealthy man who had an interesting custom. His home was always open, and he would invite the poor people of his village to eat with him. He would ring a tiny crystal bell, a servant would appear with food and they would all eat a fine meal. At the end of every meal, he would lay out his finest silverware and utensils and invite each guest to choose from among them, a gift to take home.
One day a poor man from a neighboring village received an invitation to the wealthy man's house. When it came time for this poor man to make his request, he didn't ask for the obvious things, like a goblet or a decanter. Instead, he asked for the little crystal bell.
The wealthy man felt that it was a strange request and not a very useful item for a poor man who had no servants of his own. Nevertheless, he gave the guest what he asked for.
The poor man returned to his own village, and the next day invited all of his neighbors to a feast at his house. He set out two long wooden tables and sat down to wait for his guests with great anticipation. The guests arrived, curious to know how such a poor man could expect to feed so many people. When the last person had arrived, the poor man removed the crystal bell from his pocket and made a great ceremony of ringing it.
Everyone waited. Nothing happened. He rang it again. Still nothing happened. He rang it loudly and insistently. But no servants appeared, no platters of food arrived, nothing. The poor man was humiliated. Red with indignation, he left his bewildered guests and ran all the way back to the wealthy man's house.
"You tricked me!" he cried. "You switched bells on me. You didn't give me your bell."
"Of course I did," said the wealthy man. "I gave you the very same bell that I used yesterday to summon my servants."
The poor man was livid with rage. "Why, then," he demanded, "did no one appear when I rang the bell?"
In our relationships, we are like the poor man. We ring the bell and nothing happens. Then we wonder: Who switched the bell on us?
Marriage used to be so simple: When a man and a woman got married, they rang the bell and the bell worked. Two people would meet each other. And if they liked each other, they got married. Once they got married, they stay married. Our grandparents did, our great-grandparents did it, even people who weren't very bright did it, and it worked. All sorts of people used to get married, the marriages were warm and close and they lasted. Obviously, it didn't take much talent to make a successful marriage!
But today, when we ring the bell of marriage, it doesn't work the way it's supposed to. Somewhere along the line we made the mistake of assuming that such a wonderful relationship just happens automatically. We took it for granted. After all, peoplle have been getting married for at least five thousand years. If they could do it, we ought to be able to do it, too. So we get married. And we wait for the warmth, the closeness, to arrive.
But nothing happens. Why isn't it working? What's missing?
What's missing is intimacy, the ability to share our dwelling place, that private place that exists within each of us that is personal, sacred and deep. When a violation of the private place occurs, for whatever, reason, our relationships become impersonal, profane and shallow.
Until relatively recently, everyone knew what an intimate subject was. It was private, personal and not for public consumption. If someone tried to talk about intimate feelings in conversation, everyone blushed and the subject was dropped. People understood their borders, they knew instinctively where to stop. But today we talk and talk about our need for intimacy, our lack of intimacy, our intimacy crisis - we don't have the vaguest idea what we are talking about.
Once a little boy came home from school and asked his father, "Why did G-d create us with one nose and one mouth, but two eyes?"
His father thought about it and after a while said to the boy "G-d gave us two eyes, a right eye and a left eye. With the right eye we look at our friends, with our left eye we look at candies."
The little boy was asking an honest question and he deserved an honest answer. To say that we have one ye with which to look at our friends and the other eye to look at candies doesn't seem to answer the question. But the boy understood his father's answer and was satisfied.
Let's look a little closer. What would happen if we had only one eye? We would see the height and we would see the width but we wouldn't be able to see the depth. Everything would look a little flat.
We see in three dimensions because we have two eyes. With two eyes we can see shallow or deep, near or far.
So what the father said to his son was not off the subject, it was the true answer to the question. He was merely wording his answer so that a child could understand. The reason we have two eyes is to discern the difference between shallow and deep. For a child, a candy is an example of shallow, a friend is deep.
The ability to penetrate past the surface, to have a depth in our lives, to live in the richness of three dimensions, is probably the ultimate challenge that faces our generation. But instead of taking up the challenge, we surrender without a fight.
In the old days, a couple had to have very severe problems in order to get divorced. Having lost their affection for each other, they were consumed with hatred and friction. They had to get divorced; they had no choice. Today, we find divorces that are polite and antiseptic - no bloodshed, no anger, no really serious complains, no grief over the loss of an important relationship. Just 'drifting apart'/
Such a couple goes to a marriage counselor and says, "We want to get divorced."
"Why do you want to get divorced?" the counselor asks. "How can you get divorced after five years of marriage?"
"Well," they say, "there was never any intimacy between us."
This couple has been married for five years. They have shared the most intimate thoughts and activities. Yet they can turn around and say, "You know, we don't even feel married. No hard feelings, but we want a divorce. We have nothing agains each other, but we're looking elsewhere for an intimate relationship."
How can that be? How did this happen to us?
As the beginning of time, when human beings made mistakes, if they misunderstood an aspect of their lives, if things went wrong, they assumed that the problem was religious. Maybe they were worshiping the wrong god, maybe they had omitted an important ritual, maybe they had offended their god in some way. The moral challenge of those days was to discover G-d.
According to the mystics, however, there is such a thing as the "evil inclination" whose role is to balance the powers of good and evil in the world so that human beings can have freedom of choice. In those days the evil inclination was devoted to confusing the issue about who G-d was. Because of this, the earliest people were often idolatrous. On the other hand, although they may have worshiped the wrong deity, they didn't have any problems with intimacy. They didn't question their roles as men or women, and they knew and respected the boundaries of each other's private space.
Today, our problems are not so much with spirituality, but with the most tangible, the most earthy, the most personal aspects of our lives. The "evil inclination", as we know it, tries to confuse the physical aspect of our lives, interfering with our ability to act. Whereas the ancients struggled to understand the needs of their souls, we have to struggle to understand the needs of our bodies. Our moral challenge is to serve G-d through good deeds, with our hands, our feet, our mouths, our bodies. Accordingly, our difficulty is with intimacy, with the physical part of our lives.
Intimacy is a delicate ability. Like sexuality, the ability to be intimate and the ways of being intimate have to be protected and cultivated. In life, as G-d intended it, intimacy has to be nurtured, preserved and maintained. The tool the Bible gives us for this task is modesty: the border that protects our dwelling place.
For example, in many cultures throughout history, women have covered their hair. Was this meant to make them less attractive? If so, it didn't work. The head covering itself became attractive. The purpose must have been to conceal what was intimate.
There is no virtue in being unattractive. On the contrary, to be beautiful, to be attractive, to be impressive, is a virtue, especially in marriage.
The biblical woman who dressed modestly did so, not to be less attractive, but to preserve and protect something fragile and easily lost: her ability to be intimate with her husband, which enriched both their lives.
It is part of our loss of understanding of what is intimate and what is not, that we can no longer tell the difference between what is attractive and what is intimate. We can no longer appreciate that a garment is not intimate. But it was clear to the ancient sages that while a garment may bring compliments and attract attention, it doesn't evoke intimate feelings, either in the person who sees it or in the person who wears it, particularly in the person who wears it.
It's like the age old question,"Do you lock your house to keep people out, or to protect what is inside?" Should a person act modestly and dress modestly in order to prevent intrusion from the outside, undesirable things from happening, or to preserve and maintain what is inside: the delicate and sensitive ability to have and maintain an intimate relationship?
Many things are nice and attractive - we like clothes, we like fine art, we enjoy good food. But these things are not intimate; they don't touch that part of us that says, "This is who I am." Other things, however, do evoke intimate responses - our deepest feelings of love, the passionate expression of our sexuality, the revelation of our souls - and those things belong within the framework of marriage.
G-d's message to us is clear: A married woman needs to reserve her intimacy for her husband, and a married man needs to reserve his intimacy for his wife. That can only occur within the protective framework of modesty. Profoundly and significantly, this biblical wisdom helps us protect our innate and precious abilities from becoming dulled, corrupted and lost.
Modesty is there to preserve intimacy, not to prevent sin. Modesty wasn't made for the person who wants to sin, just as laws were not made for people who want to commit crimes. Modesty has to do with something much more suble: preserving our third dimension, the ability to have a deep, intimate relationship.
If we want to sin, we can sin, no matter how modestly dressed we are. The Puritans and Victorians were overdressed and extremely modest, but it didn't minimize their sinning. It simply made it more cumbersome. They had to be a little more determined, but they managed to sin.
The purpose of modesty is not to hide ourselves from view; the purpose of modesty is to preserve our intimacy Even between a husband and wife, there is still a need for modesty. And especially between husband and wife, the intimacy has to be nurtured and protected. If the marriage is going to last a lifetime, the way it is supposed to, husband and wife must work together to preserve the intimacy.
When G-d said, "Be modest", He was telling us, "Preserve and protect your intimacy. It's a delicate and precious capacity. And if you don't take care of it, you'll lose it." When all is said and done, modesty preserves the wealth behind the ringing of the bell.
Modesty today will cause the ringing of the bell to have the effect we are searching for, the effect our grandparents and great-grandparents had when they rang the bell: Intimacy and Sexuality as G-d intended.
Reprinted from Doesn't Anybody Blush Anymore? by Rabbi Manis Friedman