The Face in the Mirror

Mirror“Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk was told of a great saint who lived in his time who claimed that during the seven days of the Feast of Booths his eyes would see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David come to the booth. Said Rabbi Mendel: “I do not see the heavenly guests; I only have faith that they are present in the booth, and to have faith is greater than to see.” (page 118)

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”John 20:29

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 8:10-11

In the early morning when I drive to the gym for my workout, the sun is not yet risen. There is no cold bite in the air, but I can still tell that the days of summer are all but exhausted and that autumn is finally approaching. We are in the month of Elul which precedes the High Holy Days and after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, comes Sukkot or the Festival of Booths.

Although I cherish all of God’s appointed times, I must confess that Sukkot is one of my favorites. I enjoy the process of building a temporary structure that can potentially shelter the guests of Heaven, but more tangibly, that will allow my family to pray, take meals, together, and celebrate God’s provision among us. It is a custom in Judaism to invite the poor to share a meal in your sukkah and in my imagination, I picture all of us, rich and poor, great and small, sitting and eating as the Master prophesied, with “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” during Sukkot.

During Passover, it is customary to set a place at the meal for Elijah the Prophet and, at one point in the haggadah, a child is sent to the door to see if Elijah is there, for if he is, then the Messiah is coming. During Sukkot, we can set a place for anyone, “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David”, both in the hope that they may come and share a meal with us, and in anticipation of the time when (again, as the Master teaches) we will all be together as a community of God, sharing and talking and eating and teaching, and everyone “will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid…” (Micah 4:4).

However, before our eyes are allowed to witness such a wonderful and miraculous “Sukkot” feast, we must learn to see with the eyes of Rabbi Mendel and the eyes of the Baal Shem Tov.

Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place –Pirkei Avot 2:4

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the “Besht,” founder of the chassidic movement) taught: “Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, the image you perceive will also be flawless. But should you look upon your fellow man and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering—you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.”

Quoted from Ethics of Our Fathers commentary:
“The Mirror”
Elul 9, 5771 * September 8, 2011

The eyes of faith see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sitting in our Sukkah sharing a meal with our family. How do the eyes of faith see your neighbors and friends? How do you see those people around you, particularly if you view them with annoyance or scorn?

A few days ago, I wrote a morning meditation about how our thoughts and words affect our relationship with other people and with God. I hadn’t really intended to write a “sequel”, but that’s how it worked out. But if we claim to see the wonders of God through the lens of faith, yet fail to use that same lens when looking at our fellow human being, what “faith” are we really professing?

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. –James 3:9-12

SuccothI could hardly write these words with any sort of sincerity if I continued to use my own eyes to view my brothers and sisters in a less than complementary light. We are completely perfect but made in God’s image. We are only mortal, but we are capable of touching the infinite. As Rabbi Heschel writes (page 118):

This, indeed, is the greatness of man; to be able to have faith. For faith is an act of freedom, of independence of our own limited faculties, whether of reason or sense-perception. It is an act of spiritual ecstasy, of rising above our own wisdom.

To have faith is not to capitulate but to rise to a higher plane of thinking. To have faith is not to defy human reason but rather to share divine wisdom…Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these.

And from the Psalms:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth. –Psalm 121:1-2

Heschel states that, “…our faith in Him conveys to us more understanding of Him than either reason or perception is able to grasp”, but what good does that do us if we refuse to even try to see people around us as God sees them; as God sees us all? We may believe we are adoring and serving God but we have failed Him completely if we cannot adore and serve people as well.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” –Mark 12:28-34

As the commentary on Pirkei Avot states:

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, taught: “Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, the image you encounter in your fellow will also be flawless. Should you gaze into this `mirror’ and see a blemish, it is your own imperfections that you are seeing.”

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. –Matthew 7:3-5

If looking in the mirror which is your brother’s face, you see only imperfection and error, how will you ever see the face of Abraham or the face of Jesus in your Sukkah?

Who is the light in your reflection?

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