“Magic mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”1
With these few words, I can evoke a familiar image within you—the evil queen of the “Snow White” story, who is immensely concerned with being the most beautiful woman in the land.
Armed with a magic mirror, she asks it if she is the fairest one of all. For much of her life, she is indeed the most beautiful. Yet, one day, the fairy tale tells us, the mirror reveals that Snow White is now the most beautiful. Thus the queen sets out to destroy Snow White and remove her prime competitor. The mirror, one of the ultimate symbols of vanity and self-obsession, reveals much about the character of the evil queen.
Mirrors have been around for quite a long time. They hold a certain power in the cultural landscape, and human beings have always been fascinated by them. While mirrors can help us feel beautiful or confident, they also can devastate, depress, or even frighten us. I’m sure that as soon as primitive humans observed the reflective properties of water or metals, they must have become obsessed with their own appearance.
You also may recall the Greek mythological tale of Narcissus. His is a moral tale in which the proud and unfeeling Narcissus is punished by the gods for having spurned all his male suitors. Some believe it was intended to be a cautionary tale addressed to young men.
In one version of the story2, a young man named Ameinias loved Narcissus but was scorned. To rebuff Ameinias, Narcissus gave him a sword, which Ameinias used to kill himself on Narcissus' doorstep. As he died he hurled curses upon Narcissus. The curses were fulfilled when Narcissus became entranced by his own reflection in a pool. Completing the symmetry of the tale, a desperate Narcissus took his sword and killed himself.
We further see how the power of mirrors, and objects used for reflecting, have been such an enduring part of the human experience. In this week’s Torah portion, a combined portion entitled Vayak’heil/P’kudei, Moses and the Israelites are completing the building of the Tabernacle as they 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 explains that when the women first brought the copper mirrors as a contribution, Moses was reluctant to accept them. The reason is because, in Moses’s view, they incited vanity and lust. 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? God told Moses that, in Egypt, the men had come home exhausted from their backbreaking labor, and the women used mirrors to help 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.4
Because of mirrors, the people of Israel survived their enslavement!
But what about Moses’s original concern that mirrors inspire vanity and superficiality, like our 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. 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?”
“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 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. However, 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.
May we all hold the mirrors up to ourselves. May we use our mirrors to help us see ourselves truthfully, and to help reflect the truth around us. May we live out the words of the Book of Proverbs: “A person who strives to do good and kind deeds attains life, success, and honor” (Proverbs 21:21).
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, RH Disney (New York: Random House, 1993, 2001, 2009) p. 2. Note that the folk tale, “Snow White,” was collected and recorded by the Brothers Grimm in Germany in the nineteenth century.
- “The Mirror of Erised,” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1997)
- Rashi on Exodus 38:8; see also, W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 624
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the “Reform, Really” column, which is featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.