Mirrors, Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018
“Mirror mirror on the wall
Who is the fairest one of all?
Slave in the magic mirror
Come from the farthest space
Through wind and darkness I summon thee
Let me see thy face.
Magic mirror on the wall
Who is the fairest one of all?”
We are asked during this season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to take a good look at ourselves – and I trust, that if you are like me, that you have checked yourself out carefully in the mirror before you came here this evening. In fact, I have found myself thinking about mirrors a lot. There are two mirrors in my bedroom (one was there before we moved in) and three in the bathroom. And another two mirrors in my study here at Kol Ami (both of which preceded me.) And I find that I look different in each of them. How do I know that? Because I look at them all! Mirror mirror on the wall!
In 1990, the first of the major losses hit our family. Mutti – the beloved matriarch of the family – died. You heard how my mother-in-law escaped from Nazi Germany as a teenager, and subsequently rescued her mother and father and sister. Mutti was the mother she rescued. Mutti was my husband David’s grandmother, his tether in the universe. Mutti was the great grandmother of my children – each of them known and loved by her. Mutti lived a long and loving life and her death was not a tragedy – but our loss is often commensurate with our blessing, and the family was sunk in loss. We gathered our young children around us and prepared to fly to Los Angeles to bury her, together with the rest of the family. My sister-in-law Diane was preparing her home for our sitting shiva. “Do I cover the mirrors?” she asked me on the phone. I thought to myself: the family doesn’t keep kosher, they don’t belong to a synagogue, they don’t observe a traditional Shabbat. “No,” I said. “You don’t need to cover the mirrors.”
Diane didn’t listen to me. Thankfully. I learned a few things. I learned that it was relief to get up in the night and walk down the hall and to see that the physical world around me had changed. The world didn’t look the same. And because our world had changed profoundly – that everything felt so different – it was a relief that it also looked so different.
And I also learned that I look at mirrors all the time. Because every time I walked down the hallway, I turned my head to look at what was the mirror, but now was only a blank sheet of white.
Blazing white. A bolt of lightning and rumble of thunder. The Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and “as morning dawned there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain a very loud blast of the shofar. [Exodus 19:16] All the people saw the thunder and the lightning and the blast of the shofar and when the people saw it, they fell back in awe.” [Exodus 20:15]
What is it that they saw? Sacred traditions tell us that they came into direct encounter with God’s Presence. They saw God’s Presence. Like the movies: you’ve seen it: Lightning, thunder, dark clouds, drama. The rabbis of old offered a different take: they suggested that God appeared to them as a mirror. [Rabbi Levi, Pesikta de Rav Kahana, piska 12] What a strange and wonderful image.
I have found myself thinking about mirrors a lot.
Once there was a princess who had never cried. Princess Elinor had never had anything to cry about. Everything she wanted she got. One day, she said to her father, the king, “Father, I want to see God.”
“See God?” he bellowed. “No one has seen God.”
“That is precisely why I want to see God,” Princess Elinor replied.
I am reciting to you practically verbatim one of my favorite stories, told by Molly Cone in a collection about the Ten Commandments. You can find the story in its full original on our website – the link for Rosh Hashanah resources.
The King did everything he could think of to show God to his daughter, but having never looked for God himself, he was at a loss for what to do. In exasperation, he wandered out of the palace onto a country road where he came across an old man planting a tree. The king sat down, exhausted, looked at the old man, and at the sapling, and said (not too kindly), “Say old man, do you ever expect to see the fruits of that tree?”
“No, of course not,” the old man replied. “But perhaps my children will, or their children, God willing.”
The king perked up. “Did you say ‘God’? Do you know God?”
The old man looked quizzically at the king as the king continued: “My daughter wants more than anything in the world to see God. Do you think you can show God to her?”
The old man had heard about the princess who had never cried. He thought for a moment and said, “Perhaps I can.”
He followed the king back to the palace and stood before Princess Elinor. She looked doubtfully at the old man and said, “Can you really show God to me, old man?
“If God wills it, I will.”
“And if God doesn’t, you’ll be sorry.”
“But first you have to do one thing for me,” the old man said. The princess raised an eyebrow. “You have to come with me to visit someone you don’t know.”
The old man led the princess out of the palace, through surrounding farms and down an old dirt road. They came to the side of a shack and stopped. The old man motioned the princess toward the doorway. She hesitated, bent down and stepped into the shack. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and she made out a young girl seated beside a low table. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of something cooking on the stove.
“I am Princess Elinor,” she said. The girl lit up. “You’re supposed to get up when you meet a princess.” The smile slipped off the girl’s face.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I never could.” She lifted her skirt.
The princess looked, quickly turned around and stepped out, blinking back the bright sunlight. “Are you ready?” the old man asked.
“Ready – for what?” the princess asked.
“You are ready,” he said. He handed the princess a small mirror, and said to her, “Hold the mirror in your hand and close your eyes and look deep into yourself.”
The princess took the mirror in her hand and closed her eyes. Suddenly, big fat tears started to roll down the face of the princess who had never cried. “Why are your crying?” he asked.
“I have seen so little,” she said. “I have only seen myself. I have only thought of myself. Do you think it would help if I brought her good food to eat, maybe a new dress? Do you think it would help?”
The old man took the mirror from her hand. “My child,” he said, “You have seen God.” [Molly Cone, Who Knows Ten]
Mirror mirror on the wall.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav taught that a person reaches in one of three directions: inward – to oneself; out – to others; up – to God. He added: when we reach (or see) deeply in any one direction, we touch all three.
In, out, up. Each facet is a mirror. How we see ourselves in others affects how we see ourselves. How we see God affects how we see ourselves. David and I are the parents of four and through them, grandparents of ten. Some of you knew me as the parent of young children; some of you know me now as the grandmother of my delicious grandchildren. Over the years, our children have taught us so much. Our eldest, Talia, kept a little black notebook, a running list of all the things we did wrong. We didn’t always know what it was – but something would happen that would prompt a furtive look, then pulling out that little black book, writing some notes and quickly closing it. We figured it wasn’t fair. Someday we’d be in therapy together, and she would be the only one with the notes.
Sometimes what we learned was in a momentary exchange. Like the time our youngest, Liore, was two and a half. – a story some of you know. David was giving her a bath, and out of the blue, Liore turned to him and said, “Abba, God likes boys better than girls.”
I know exactly what I would have said had I been there. I would have definitely said, “That is SO not true.” But David was much wiser. He asked instead,” What makes you think that?” Liore said, “Well, God has a penis and boys have a penis, so God likes boys better.”
There were two amazing things to learn from this moment. The first – and most obvious. Why did my daughter think that God had a penis? (This in a family where it’s her mother who is the rabbi!) Many of you have been to my home (and those who haven’t, I would love to invite you for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Please talk to me.) You won’t see any portraits of God in my home – and certainly none of God with a penis. So what made her say that? Don’t doubt for a moment the power of the pronoun. Liore had heard God described as He – He and His. With two brothers and a father, she knew what a ‘he’ looked like. But the more subtle and the more profound lesson was something else: because Liore imagined God as male, she imagined herself – in a cosmic way – as worth less. How we see God affects how we see ourselves. We are reflected in the Divine Mirror.
You never know looking at someone what mountains they have to climb. Learning to love is my mountain. I have had many teachers along this way. You have been among them. We have created a community of love. But it is in the simple and pure and unencumbered moments with my grandchildren that I know, for sure, that I have learned to love.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting with my 4-year-old granddaughter Maya, helping her wash up. (My grandchildren call me ‘Imama.’) She turned to me and said, “Imama, you are like a grandmother.” I said to her, “I am a grandmother.” She said, “Ohhh my God!”
I can’t believe it myself. I am getting old. I am happy and grateful to say that. And though getting old is beautiful, it’s not always pretty.
Mirror mirror on the wall. I open the door to my bathroom in my Kol Ami study (yes – I have my own bathroom) – and ten inches in front of my face are the mirrors of the medicine cabinet, lit up by ferocious fluorescent lights. It’s beautiful getting older – but it’s not always pretty. And then I came up with a brilliant plan. I have covered the mirrors with photos of my grandchildren. Now, I open the bathroom door and break out into a huge smile.
We need to be seen deeply. Not just by our color, or our age, or our ethnicity, physical ability or occupation. In the world around us, we are assaulted daily by messages that denigrate human dignity, and ethnic, racial and religious uniqueness. Now, more than ever, our eyes need to welcome everyone who enters this sacred space. Even here, at Kol Ami, we have assumptions of what it looks like to be a member of the community. I have overheard members of our community, people of different colors, being greeted by:
- Excuse me, this is a synagogue. Can I help you?
- Are you one of the custodians?
- Or, overheard at a barbecue for the Coachman Shelter families we host here at Kol Ami, said to one of our incredible Kol Ami volunteers: And how long have you been at the Coachman?
Everyone needs to be valued and cherished as part of this sacred community not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are. Not in spite of our limitations, our abilities or vulnerabilities, our connections or our aloneness, our age, our color, our partners, our faith traditions, our ethnicities – but because of it, all of it, because of who we are. We are all facets of the unfolding Jewish story.
Outside in the Atrium is a spectacular gallery of faces of Kol Ami, a glimpse into our multi-faceted, diverse glory. There is room for you in this gallery of photos. Please let any of us know if you would like to be part of it.
When the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God appeared to them as a mirror. Thousands of people looked – and they each saw themselves reflected. One mystical mirror; thousands of refractions of light. Each of us is a unique refraction of the Divine Presence. Each of us harbors within a spark of divine presence. But we don’t see that divine spark looking at a mirror. We see it reflected in the goodness we do; we see it reflected in the eyes of others. It really matters how we are seen by the people around us. What you reflect in your eyes tells others how they are valued, how they are accepted, and respected, and welcomed and loved. God has no eyes except yours. The way you look at others will give the people around you the chance to see themselves reflected in love.
“There were no mirrors in my nana’s house.
No mirrors in my nana’s house
And the beauty that I saw in everything
Was in her eyes.” [Isaya Barnwell No Mirrors in My Nana’s House]
“The world outside was a magical place.
I only knew love.
I never knew hate,
and the beauty in everything
was in her eyes…”
In your eyes.