Monday, March 23, 2009

Shining the Mirror on Ourselves

An excerpt from my sermon last Friday night:

It may surprise you to learn that mirrors, and objects used for reflecting, have been such an enduring part of the human experience. In this week's Torah portion, a combined parasha entitled Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moses and the Israelites are completing the building of the Tabernacle as their continue their desert wanderings. Throughout the process, Moses has requested that the men and women bring items from their households to contribute to the building. They've brought linens, threads of various colors, gold, silver and copper, and even animal skins. In Exodus chapter 38, verse 8, when a holy wash basin is being described, the text tells us, "Moses made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting." These mirrors, made of copper, must have been highly valued in the Biblical world. The comment about their inclusion, seemingly minor, inspired Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, to share a fascinating midrash about women and their role in the evolving Israelite community.

Rashi brings the explanation that when the women first brought the copper mirrors as a contribution, Moses was reluctant to accept them. The reason is because, in Moses' view, they incited vanity and superficiality. God, however, told Moses to accept those mirrors and that they were indeed very special - in the following way. Those very same mirrors had been instrumental in the creation of the Israelite nation. How? You are going to love this. God told Moses that, in Egypt, the men had come home exhausted from their back-breaking work, and the women used mirrors to help them to present themselves to their husbands in an enticing manner, leading to increased procreation... Thus the Israelites continued to increase in number under the slavery in Egypt.

Because of mirrors, the people of Israel survived their enslavement!

But what about Moses' original concern – that mirrors inspire vanity and superficiality, like the story of Narcissus. Mirrors are able to disclose a kind of truth about the one who gazes into it. There are even superstitions that focus on the mirror seemingly absorbing a piece of your soul when you gaze into the glass. But, perhaps the truth telling can help us become better people.

An old Jewish legend tells of a rabbi who traveled to a village where only a single, poor Jew lived. Although destitute, the Jew opened his house to him, shared his meager meal, and apologized that he couldn't show more honor to his guest. Upon leaving, the rabbi blessed his host and wished him well. Thereafter, the poor man's lot improved so much that he soon became the wealthiest man in the village. He even hired a guard to keep away the beggars from clamoring for tzedakah (charity).

When the rabbi returned a year later, he had to plead with the guard to let him see his master,and then he was rudely ushered into the house and made to wait. When at last the man appeared, the rabbi asked him: "Look through the window. What do you see?"

"People going about their affairs," answered the man.

"Now look in your mirror. What do you see?"

"Only myself."

"The window and the mirror are both made of glass," observed the rabbi.

"The only difference between them is a silver coating. It's time to remove it."

Shocked and sobered by the rabbi's words, the man promised to change his miserly ways from that day forth.

The Israelite women teach us a very important lesson when they bring forth mirrors as their contribution to the tabernacle.

- Each of us has something to contribute to our community, and it is not up to us to judge the relative merits of the contribution.

- Mirrors, when used for selfish vanity, can keep us from seeing the world around us, but when they are used to help us create something sacred and open, they can help us make the world a better place.

In this current economic climate, these two lessons ring even more true. Each one of us has something to contribute, and it might not always be the most obvious offering. Your time, wisdom, enthusiasm, support, and love can be as valuable, and usually even more valuable, to your friends, family, and community, than your checkbook. Just because you can't give money doesn't mean that your contribution isn't important to those around you.

Also, for those among us who may not be hit as hard by the crisis, please do not let that layer of silver keep you from seeing those outside who may need your help. Open the window and share some of your silver with those who are without.


AvivaMicah said...

I loved this. Timely and beautifully expressed. You've really inspired me to do something positive, not just think about doing positive things.

Lindsay said...

Whew. Love it. Better than my cup of coffee this morning. More nutritious than my morning bagel. Thank you for sharing, Marce.