A Look Within
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Clergy Corner, June 12, 2019
A rabbi I know once brought a nursery school class into the synagogue sanctuary for a tour. He showed them the bima, the ner tamid, the cantor"s and rabbi's lecterns. Finally, the tiny kids stood before the huge doors of the Holy Ark.
"What do you suppose is in there?" he asked them.
"Nothing!" one child answered, "It's empty. There’s nothing in there."
"It’s a new car!" another shouted.
"An old, old Torah!" responded another.
"I know! I know" one child insisted, "It's a mirror!"
Each of the kids was right.
For Jews distant and disconnected from Judaism, the first child was right: The Ark is empty. Judaism is alien and barren of meaning and substance. For others, Judaism holds only a superficial, aesthetic appeal. It's all Bar Mitzvah parties, bagels and lox on Sunday morning, and what we'll be wearing to Yom Kippur this year. It is religion as a cultural entertainment -- a warm, ethnic sentimentality with no ethical or spiritual demands.
For some, Judaism is a tired, old, depleted faith. They hear in our traditon nothing important for a modern mind, and what they do hear is interpreted as misogynist, racist, or coldly legalistic. But for those who are prepared to look deeply and imaginatively, the Ark contains a mirror, reflecting the truth about ourselves, our values, our accomplishments and our limitations.
The 19th century Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, taught that the uniqueness of the Hasidic approach to Judaism could be summarized in one instruction:: All Jews are taught, "You should not lie." Hasidism teaches: "You should not lie to yourself." It is this reflexive turn, the turn inward, that characterizes the Kotzker's Torah. At a Tikkun Layl Shavuot years ago, my teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis proposed this reflexive turn as a way to hear the Ten Commandments anew. He turned each commandment inward, and challenged us to look deeply into the mirror of Torah.
The Sixth Commandment, for example, teaches "You shall not murder." Now read it reflexively: "You shall not murder yourself." What are all the ways we daily murder ourselves? How do we kill our dreams, our ideals, our standards, our truth?
"You shall not steal...from yourself." When do we steal from ourselves? When we steal precious time. When we starve the soul to feel our basest desires. And how do we make restitution?
"You shall not commit adultery...against yourself." How have we adulterated ourselves, betraying sacred principles, practicing moral promiscuity and spiritual unfaithfulness?
"You shall not bear false witness...against yourself." When do we offer false testimony about ourselves? Or to ourselves? How many lies do we rely upon to get through the day?
"You shall not covet...yourself." We covet when we simply cannot live knowing that a neighbor has possessions and position that aren't ours. Why do we make the lives of others into the standard for our own identity? Why do we allow others to become the measure of our own sense of worth?
"Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy." Where is the sanctified Sabbath within you? Where in your life is a place of peace, your haven and refuge from competition and conflict?
"Honor your father and mother...within you." What does it mean to carry a father's love or a mother's wisdom within? What has become of the fatherly and the motherly in you?
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." This commandment is about making an oath, but failing to keep our word. What promises and commitments did I once made to myself that I subsequently broke, ignored, or allowed to slip quietly into lazy neglect?
"You will have no other gods before Me...including yourself." When have I made of myself the measure of all things? When do I imagine that I and only I am the center of the universe? Why do I need such arrogance to feel valued and significant?
"I am the Lord your God." Where is the image of God within me? What have I done with this precious gift? Have I nurtured and cultivated my soul? Or let it waste away?
This week, on the festival of Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the gift of Torah, the mirror of our souls. It is ours, but only if we are brave enough to look deeply and honestly within. Hag Sameach.