October 3, 2014
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" That was the question asked by the evil Queen in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, repeated by Angelina Jolie in the movie Maleficent last summer. Of course, the queen expects the answer will be her; but she receives an unpleasant surprise. It is someone else. Mirrors, those dependable objects of reflection, surprise us from time to time.
What exactly is a mirror, and when did human beings first begin to gaze at their own reflections? The earliest mirrors were probably lakes or ponds that showed the viewer a shaky view of himself, given the right lighting. The Greek myth of Narcissus, with or without Echo, gave a glimpse of the enduring attraction of staring at one's own image. Narcissus is so obsessed with his own beauty that he cannot tear himself away from the object of his own desire—himself.
Every society in the world before and since has used mirrors. Each ancient archeological site contains at least a few mirrors, luxury items made of highly polished metals. Seeing your own image had great importance whether you lived in Africa, Europe, Asia, or the Americas. Until recently, large mirrors were one of the most valuable items in a home, and the great castles of Europe, and the antebellum mansions of the American South, featured gigantic glass mirrors imported from famous mirror manufacturers. Ever since the industrial revolution made mass production feasible mirrors have been a staple item available everywhere. Apparently all human beings want to see themselves.
Mirrors are invaluable for fixing your hair or your makeup or tying a tie, but mirrors often show us not only what we need to see but what we don't want to see.
I'm reminded of a silly little poem:
My face in the mirror
Isn't wrinkled or drawn...
I think I might never
Put my glasses back on.
Yom Kippur is a time to put our glasses back on and gaze into that mirror. This Day of Atonement presents an opportunity to look at ourselves, to see what our reflection can show us about who we are and what we have been in the past year. And it also gives us the chance to think about how we have appeared to others. As Robert Burns put it, "Would some power the Giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us..." In other words, I wish God could show us how everyone else thinks we look.
That's what we are here for tonight, in a way: to look in the mirror at who we are and who we wish to become.
But there may be a little more to it than that.
Yom Kippur in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem was the time when the High Priest, the Kohein Gadol, went into the Holy of Holies to plead for a good year for the people of Israel. We will remember this ritual tomorrow in our Minchah afternoon service, the Avodah, and will recall the preparations that were made before the great task of asking for forgiveness could even be attempted.
As the priest prepared to enter the Kadosh Kadoshim, the holiest place on earth for Jews, he was robed in his vestments, far more elegant and comprehensive than the simple white robes we wear tonight, they included a tunic, a headpiece, and a breastplate of precious and semi-precious stones representing the 12 tribes of the people of Israel. And then, finally, into that breastplate were placed two mysterious objects, called the Urim and Tumim.
Exodus instructed us to "place the Urim and the Tumim into the breastplate of judgment and they shall be over Aaron's heart when he comes before God." (Ex. 28:30) And so it was on Yom Kippur when his descendant, the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest in each generation, came to ask forgiveness.
But just what were these objects, the Urim and Tumim?
According to the Zohar, the great text of Jewish mysticism that our Zohar Study Group has been exploring for the past 11 years, the Urim and Tumim were actually a kind of special lens, a "resplendent speculum", an aspaklarya meira, a glass that shines. You know: a kind of illuminated mirror, mirror on the wall. They were used, according to the rabbis, as a means to divine God's will and understand the answers to the questions that plague human beings: why are we here? Will it be a good year for us? Will it be a time of blessing or curse? And simpler, more practical questions, too, like, should we go to war?
The Zohar says that while one of these objects, the Urim, was illuminated by divine light, the other, the Tumim, was not illuminated, and it was a kind of camera obscura, a reflecting surface that did not have its own light. According to mystical tradition, the Shechinah, the divine indwelling presence of God, also does not have its own light. It is like the moon, reflecting the light of more elevated and inaccessible elements of the divine.
Both the Urim, the lens that shines, and the Tumim, the lens that does not shine, are designed to show God's will to the world. And together, these two objects formed a kind of magical speculum, a means of focusing God's presence and making it manifest for us.
The magical concept of the crystal ball was likely based on the Urim and Tumim. But really, they were not crystal balls, but a complex mirror. In order to discover our future the Torah instructs us to look into a kind of elaborate, sacred mirror.
And what did we see by gazing into the Urim and Tumim?
Well, since we are each created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, this speculum can be said to shine with our very own images. And the way to find out how things will be for us in the year to come is by looking into the mirror.
According to Jewish belief, then, you yourself bear the secret of your own future. You are the one who has the ability to do Teshuvah, to return and repent. You will shape your year.
You see, the mirror we need to look into on this Yom Kippur, the image we need to see, is our own, as it truly is. And the promise of this Day of Atonement is that if we can manage to look closely enough, gaze not only out far but in deep, our future can be filled with blessing.
Because, with God's help, we will choose to make it so.
May you find your teshuvah on this sacred Day of Atonement. In looking into that mirror over this Yom Kippur, may you find your own urim and tumim, your own ability to illuminate your life. And may you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.
Gmar chatimah tovah.