A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Don’t let our reflection blind us to needs of others

For most of my life I have inclined towards a philosophy of universalism. From my earliest years, I understood our Jewish tradition as teaching that each human being is created B’tselem Elohim, in the Divine image, and that all human beings are equally entitled to dignity and respect.  While I understand that we have a responsibility to care for ourselves and those around us, I am deeply compelled by the obligation that Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Yet, if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Now is that moment, I believe, when we must reassess our priorities and make certain that our particularistic concern for ourselves has not blinded us to our equal obligation for all others. For, if now now, when?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayakheil includes the moment when the ancient Israelites created the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, in the wilderness.  Curiously, the Torah reports that Betzalel, the artisan in charge of the project, “. . . made the copper washstand and its copper base out of the mirrors of the women assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” [Ex. 38: 8]

The mention of these mirrors is surprising. Many commentators have suggested reasons for their inclusion, but these days, more than ever, I find an important ethical lesson hidden in this text. 

One of the joys of becoming a grandfather for the first time is watching my four month old granddaughter discover herself and the world. As many of you have experienced, it is delightful to see an infant gazing into a mirror and realize that every move she makes is mimicked by the image she sees.  She can gaze almost endlessly at her reflection.

Thankfully, most of us outgrow this developmentally appropriate narcissism and obsession with ourselves and our own image. We begin to realize that there is a world around us, and that we are not the center of the universe. Hopefully, our healthy development guides us to balance our self-interest with a concern for others.

Mirrors, we come to understand, while instruments of practical value, are also potentially agents of narcissism. When we gaze endlessly into mirrors, real and metaphoric, we are not merely self-focused. We can also become blinded to others, and to the plight of others. We begin to believe that our own story, our own pain, our own needs, is all that matters.

Make no mistake: we have every right to look into the mirror, to mourn, to pray, and to feel a myriad of emotions. Our needs are real. Our pain is painful. Our grief is palpable. There can be no denying that the horrific and unspeakable terrorist attacks inflicted upon the people of Israel on October 7 stand alone as atrocites. In a civilized world, such things cannot be justified and of course, may not go unanswered. The taking of innocent hostages, subjected to inhumane treatment must be soundly condemned and everything possible must be done to restore them to freedom. Likewise, the real and present danger to the innocent people of Israel must be addressed and somehow resolved, if necessary, through ethical military action, but hopefully, through diplomacy and efforts to create two states living side by side in what, we pray, might be a lasting peace. 

Beyond the boundaries of Israel, there is more that is real, as we see the image of ourselves reflected in our fears of growing antisemitism which, like all hatred, prejudice, and intolerance, must be eradicated, through education, legislation and dialogue and more. All human beings, created in B’tselem Elohim, in the image of the Divine, have the right to live freely and without fear.

The Torah portion teaches us an important lesson. There is a reason that mirrors were incorporated into the Tabernacle – not just to make it beautiful, but also to remind the people of Israel, and all of us, not to cling to our mirrors and not to become blinded by seeing merely own image. The mirrors were incorporated into a part of the Mishkan to remind us to let go of the belief that our own narrative is the only one that counts. By bringing their copper mirrors to help create part of the holiest place in the people’s midst, the women taught the important lesson of balance. Yes, we must be for ourselves, but not only for ourselves. We must look at the image of the other as well.  We must see our own reflection and the reflection of others, for all created in the Divine image, and all are equally entitled to the treatment we demand for ourselves. 

For us to demand that the world acknowledge our pain and our grief and our fear without our simultaneously acknowledging the pain and grief and fear of others is folly at the least, and hypocrisy at the worst. Our tradition, our Torah, demands that we find the strength and courage to look beyond our own image, and act with integrity, seeing others around us with the same commitment to dignity and respect we expect others to extend to us.  Then, and only then will our reflections be a blessing.  A blessing of holiness to us, to each other, and to all who dwell on Earth.  

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