Written by: Rabbi Yosef Rosen
Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter of the Polish city of Ger was once studying Torah alone in a synagogue and had an uneasy feeling creep over him. He suddenly realized that a man way across the room was ardently staring at him, and had been for a long time.
Uncomfortable as the subject of a stranger’s intense stare, Rabbi Isaac Meir boldly asked him, “What are you staring at?” The man defended his strange behavior based on two words which kick off the upcoming Jewish Month, and we’ll see that the Rabbi’s response is critical advice for us and this year’s High Holidays.
The last month of the Jewish calendar before Rosh Hashana is Elul, which always begins with the Torah portion which begins with the opening words of a speech by Moses, “Behold, I …” (in Hebrew: “Re’eh anochi…”).
Regarding these first two words, the commentators have many, many different explanations. One is that Moses literally means “Look [at] me.” Accordingly, our Torah teaches that an ordinary person can derive spiritual power when he or she stares at a righteous, spiritually-exalted person. Sacred inspiration can come by visually studying a moral paragon.
The man in the synagogue answered that he was merely fulfilling this advice. The Rabbi sharply countered by directing the man to the astounding words of the Prophet Isaiah (60:21): “All Jews are ‘righteous.’”
Therefore, the Rabbi said, “SO GO LOOK IN A MIRROR!”
If all Jews are called “righteous”, then why bother staring at a rabbi? Look at yourself instead!
Rabbi Isaac Meir’s ‘reflection deflection’ is critical for all of us looking for a happy New Year. He did not tell that Jew to go stare at his friend, or his sister, or a business associate. Rather, he told that Jew to get a mirror, as if to inform him: “all Jews are righteous, even you! Stare at yourself!”
Everyone, even those we consider the lowliest, has enough holiness from which to draw inspiration for improving our lives in the upcoming days, weeks, and years. Every person, at some times and in some ways, think, speak, and do things that are very praiseworthy both here and in loftier spiritual realms. So, in front of the mirror, we must check ourselves out and meditate: “There was never a ‘me’ before I was born, and there will never be a ‘me’ after I depart this world; so much depends on me in the New Year.”
It’s not vanity for us to use a mirror to remind us of how beautiful we are, but rather, it’s productive. True, we need to honestly see our faults and know what’s ugly. However, a constructive New Year is impossible if we dwell on our mistakes.
We have to have self-confidence, and that must come from a soul inspired by the power and potential that God makes latent in every Jewish Heart: “Love your fellow AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF” (Leviticus 19:8). The Torah doesn’t command self-esteem, it presumes it!
As the High Holiday season approaches, Rabbis start preparing sermons and classes and Synagogues begin logistical planning. There are extra prayers to say and food to cook. Indeed, we are busy with many holy and important activities to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos.
Amid all of the holiday preparations, we must also find time to stare at ourselves, literally and figuratively. We must find time to look into Rabbi Isaac Meir’s mirror. It’s easy to use a mirror to find fault, and we have plenty. The Rabbi is telling us to use the mirror to find the holy Jew within all of us, to see the ideal person concealed by our petty facades and emotional barriers.
The Hasidic masters explain that once we have a good session at the mirror, only then we can confidently reflect the Divinity of our Souls and take the next step to make requests for the New Year from On High.