What is “Chein”? Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder

There's an old Yiddish song; “By mir bist du shein, By mir host du chein– To me you're beautiful, to me you have chein”

But what is chein?

I guess it all depends on how you ask the question:

Scenario One: Tell me, “Is the girl pretty?

“Well, she has lots of chein.”

Result:  She’s probably not pretty.

Scenario two: Tell me, ‘What kind of personality does she have’?

“Well she has lots of chein”

Result:  She’s probably very sweet.                                                                                                             

In Megillat Esther 2:15, it says “Esther would elicit chein in all who saw her.” It’s very difficult to translate the word “chein.” Some (but not all) of the meanings are: captivate, favor, grace, appreciation, and inner beauty. Mishlei in 2:3 tells us, “One should find “chein” in the eyes of G-d and man.” It seems that we should strive to be people who elicit chein from others. But what exactly does this mean?
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 108A states, that when the Torah tells us in Genesis 6:8 “Noach found chein in the eyes of G-d,” it was originally decreed that he too should perish in the Flood but he found favor in G-d’s eyes and was spared. The Torah Temima explains that chein is connected to the word ‘chanun, ‘ merciful- compassionate, and the idea that Noach elicited chein is a statement that Noach really did not through his own merit or righteousness deserve to be saved; rather, he was saved through an act of mercy from G-d. So eliciting chein would therefore seem to have a negative connotation, rather than a positive one; describing someone not meeting the highest standards, who nonetheless elicits G-ds compassion. Seen this way, it actually describes the positive nature of the one looking favorably at the other rather than the one eliciting the favor.

How then do we understand the verse in Mishlei, which tells us we should be individuals who elicit chein from others, as this implies a good character trait, rather than seeing chein as depending on the mercy of others which implies weakness? Of course there are times that we may find ourselves in a position that demands the assistance of others, and the ability to rely on another, but is this what “chein” means?
Was this the case with Esther as well? In a certain way it would seem so. There are three times where the term chein is used concerning Esther.

The first two times is where we find Esther in the selection process to be the new queen; there it says in 2:15 “Esther would elcit chein in all who saw her.” This implies that Esther stood out amongst the many other girls who were striving to become the new queen. So their desire to assist her could possibly be explained as an emotion of compassion for this young girl, who didn’t have any idea how to prepare herself to meet the king. But is this true? Was her lack of preparation a reflection of weakness? There’s no evidence of that, just like there’s no evidence of the chein she elicited was because her co-applicants feeling bad for her. On the contrary, it’s just as plausible to say that she had very high self-esteem. In fact, the Talmud in Megilla 13A, relates that everyone saw her as a member of their own nation, and therefore felt a strong kinship with her. So this certainly wasn’t compassion.

The Torah Temima on Esther 2:15 recognizes the apparent contradiction between the presentation of chein in regard to Noach, where it would seem he was saved even though he wasn’t deserving,  and the chein regarding Esther, where it’s very understandable why she would be chosen by the king. He argues that Esther’s chein existed because each person was willing to live with the acceptance that Esther was a member of their nation…a clear impossibility. Here chein exists at the expense of truth! So we’re back to our original question; why is chein good? Why are we instructed to elicit chein in the eyes of G-d and man if this might involve a falsehood? Aren’t we commanded in Shmot 23:7 “distance yourself from falsehood?”

Truth can sometimes be constricting. Sometimes we have to see beyond the parameters of what is, and project a possibility-a potential, even though it’s not existent and not real as of yet. It is a belief that there’s something within a person that while not clearly manifested at the moment, may burst forth and distinguish this person in the future. There was something  G-d saw in Noach- a spark-a potential that elicited His mercy, that through  Noach, G-d  could rebuild mankind… even though the facts on the ground did not currently support this thesis. That spark is chein. This is also the type of feeling elicited from our children. Besides the fact that they are an extension of us, they also have the potential to reach greatness so our hopes are invested in them. their potential to reach that greatness elicits chein and makes us want to invest all our strength in them to help them reach that potential.

The third and final time that Esther’s chein is mentioned pertains to her accepting her role as heroine of her people, after Mordechai tells her in 4:14 “For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, and you and your father’s house will perish. She then dons royal clothing and enters the courtyard of the king. Now we know that every time it says the word “Hamelech” the king without naming Achashverosh, it is alluding to Hashem. So in Esther 5:2 it says “When the king noticed Esther standing in the court, she won his favor,” Hashem sees Esther ready to sacrifice life and limb, and use her wit and tremendous courage to save her people, Hashem recognizes her potential- hers isn’t a dormant chein, or an unrevealed chein . Her chein wasn’t a chein of mercy, it was a chein of favor, appreciating the fact that she was ready to sacrifice herself on behalf of her nation.

Noach was notorious for not going out and rebuking others to repent their ways, had he done so, he might have been worthy to have his chein be that of merit, and not of mercy. But we can be proactive and extend ourselves with kindness to our brothers and help them get what they lack whether physically or spritually and perhaps G-d will say about us “By mir bist du shien, By mir hist du chein-To me you are beautiful, to me you have chein”.


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