“An immoral society betrays humanity because it betrays the basis for humanity, which is memory.”
~ Elie Wiesel, “Building a Moral Society,” Chamberlain Lecture at Lewis & Clark College, 1995
Rabbi Benjamin Blech shares a beautiful story from the Hasidic tradition that illustrates the moral danger implicit in mirrors:
“A very rich young man went to see a Rabbi in order to ask his advice about what he should do with his life. The rabbi led him over to the window and asked him:
‘What can you see through the glass?”
“I can see men coming and going and a blind man begging for alms in the street.’
Then the rabbi showed him a large mirror and said to him:
‘Look in this mirror and tell me what you see.’
‘I can see myself.’
‘And you can’t see the others. Notice that the window and the mirror are both made of the same basic material, glass. You should compare yourself to these two kinds of glass. Through one, you saw other people and felt compassion for them. Through the one coated in silver – you see yourself. You will only be worth anything when you have the courage to tear away the coating of silver covering your eyes in order to be able to see again and love your fellow man.’” [Rabbi Blech, “Look In The Mirror”]
The month of Elul leading up to the appointed time of Rosh Hoshanna is a time for reflection preceding the High Holy Days. We would do well, as Christians, to learn more of this season, as we have, as a community of believers, great cause to call ourselves into a deep, unprecedented, spiritually transformative season of reflection with regard to the deafening silence of complicity emanating from the European Church last century, during the Holocaust.
We’re reading the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel in one of my classes. It’s a cornerstone in the canon of Holocaust literature. Wiesel closes the book by making us consider the power of the process of reflection. Last week, I had students take a pen in hand, stand before a mirror and write in their journals as to what, who, they saw looking back at them. We talked about the experience. A bit of interaction with the glass with a silver coating. Next, we’ll bounce those ideas off the last line of the book—the protagonist, Eliezer, finally gathering the strength to look at himself in a mirror after having been liberated from Buchenwald, hovering between life and death:
“From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.
We all need to think about what this means; talk about what this means, learn about what this means. Our young people, especially, must have this mirror of painful insight held before them no matter how uncomfortable it is. We must deepen and broaden their
inner spaces in this way. We owe it to those who have suffered as well as to ourselves to teach, memorialize, and remember the Holocaust. We, of the faith tradition who teaches “Love your neighbor as yourself” and the parable of “the Good Samaritan” as two of its core tenets, must still somehow come to grips with the fact that there is little evidence of the Christian Church holding to those teachings as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was carried out in the heart of Christian Europe.
We must hold up the mirror without the silver coating to see into the suffering of others, that we might realize that we are ‘them’ as well as ‘us.’
In this season of Elul, may we look into the mirror each morning and ask ourselves who we are, really. And may we find the courage to learn about who “they” are, as well, because if we don’t know who “they” are, we won’t really know who “we” are, either. Shabbat shalom.