Every year during the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I share an edited version of my sermon for my congregation, Temple Beth Torah. Edited means I take out most of the jokes. This year, I taped my sermon in advance and it was included in our synagogue's internet-aided remote prayer services. My friend, Rabbi Steve Leder in Los Angeles, calls it "artificial insermonation." May this New Year find us finally together for real.
This year's sermon, "The Mirrored Wash Basin," is the third in a three-year cycle about the klei kodesh, the unique and holy objects that were in the Temple in Jerusalem. Two years ago, I spoke about the menorah — the golden seven-branched swiveling candelabrum. Last year, I spoke about the aron hakodesh — the golden ark that held the Tablets of Law, a jar of manna and Aaron's flowering staff. This year, I will describe the spiritual significance of a wash basin made of mirrors — the kior.
We first read of the mirrored wash basin in Exodus 30:17-21, "Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: You shall also make a wash basin of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it."
We learn about the origins of these mirrors in a rabbinic midrash, Tanhuma-Yelamdenu: You find that when Israel was in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimon bar Chalafta, what did the daughters of Israel do? They would go down to draw water from the river and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets, and they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. … And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, "I am more beautiful than you," and he would say, 'I am more beautiful than you.' And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately."
The mirrors were the refutation of slavery even for a moment. The mirrors were like the blues or like gospel music for enslaved Blacks in America. They were the stubborn and hopeful assertion of hope in the face of despair.
Mirrors are a seduction and we live in a culture of seduction — one that cares more about how we look than what we do. Christopher Lash called it a culture of narcissism.
Our cultural obsession with physical beauty begins early. In a famous study, a group of nursery school children were first taught a lesson by a master teacher who was not beautiful and then by a supermodel who had no experience at all teaching children. The kids then were asked, "Who was the better teacher?" and most of them chose the supermodel. (The fathers of the kids also chose the supermodel.)
Even the sacred texts of Judaism have occasionally fallen prey to the mirror's seductions. In Genesis, Rachel is praised for her physical beauty while her sister Leah is dismissed as having "weak eyes." There is even a specific Hebrew blessing we are commanded to say after seeing a beautiful person, baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam she kacha lo b'olamo … v'Brad Pitt. "You are blessed, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has created a world with such beauty in it."
However, I am proud to say that at its core Judaism remained wise about the ephemeral nature of physical beauty. For example, there is also a prayer for seeing a disabled or little person, baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam meshaneh ha'briot, "You are blessed, O Lord our God, who has made a world with so many different people."
Mirrors must remind us that virtue, not beauty, should make us gasp.
I am thinking at this moment about Michael Jackson's song, "The Man in the Mirror," about a man who needed to change his ways. I do not think he was able to change his ways, but perhaps at the end he was at least able to yearn for the change. All I know is that …
"I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
(Take a look at yourself, and then make a change)
(Na na na, na na na, na na, na nah)."
Play the full version of Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" then say with me … Amen.
(For those of you who want to hear Rabbi Gellman preach this sermon, here is the link.)
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