Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells a story of a time he was leading some pre-school children on a tour of the synagogue. He led the children into the sanctuary and onto the bima.
Just as he was about to open the ark, the teacher informed him that they had run out of time. “Since we have run out of time, when we come back I’ll show you what is behind this curtain. It is very special.”
The next day the teacher came and told him his closing words had sparked a lot of debate in the class, with some of the children guessing what was “behind the curtain.” One kid, whom Kushner said was “destined to be a distinguished professor of nihilistic philosophy,” said nothing was behind it. Another kid said there was a “Jewish holy thing” behind there.
But one kid said: “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens the curtain; behind it, there’s a giant mirror.”
Rabbi Alan Lew teaches that on Rosh HaShanah the sounding of the shofar blows open the gates of heavens. It is during these Ten Days of Awe that the heavenly realm is most open to us.
When the shofar blows open those mystical gates, what do we see on the inside? Perhaps what we find is exactly what that young pre-schooler thought we would find – a great big Divine Mirror.
So much in life pulls our attention away from our own inner experience. At work, we focus on the needs of the company and the performance of our individual tasks – our clients and customers and co-workers. At home, responsibilities to family pull our gaze to our parents, our spouses, our siblings, and our children. The news we watch and read brings us to places of terrible pain and suffering in the face of war or natural disaster.
Most of the time, when we take a few moments to relax, we open a book, grab our phone or tablet, or turn on the TV to enter into someone else’s world – a game someone else is playing, a life someone else is living.
And frankly, it feels good to escape. We need a break from the pressures and demands of our own lives.
But the celebration of the Days of Awe asks us to enter into that uncommon and uncomfortable space – in the mirror. The Hebrew word for repentance – תשובה – Teshuvah comes from the word שוב – Shuv meaning “return”. This Sabbath between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva – the Sabbath of Return.
This Shabbat, take some quiet time, and push yourself to look in the mirror.
Who are you? What do you love? What gives you passion and purpose? For what do you yearn? What do you miss? Of what are you proud? What do you regret? For what are you grateful?
Every year at this sacred time, the spiritual process in answering these questions prepares us for the times in life when we really need to know ourselves.
A year ago, no one in Ukraine imagined the challenges they would face in an unwelcome and unjust war. A week ago, no one in southwest Florida imagined the challenges they would face following a devastating hurricane.
In the face of losing a home, a business, a loved-one – a life that once seemed secure – what do we see when we look in the mirror?
If we look inside our deepest selves, we can find a flame burning within us, kindled by the Holy One and all of those we love, a light to guide us through the darkness, illuminating storehouses of strength and resilience we never knew we had. That light clarifies what really matters in life, and helps us to see who we truly are.
When we look in the mirror this Shabbat Shuva, I hope we see reflected there the image of God. I hope each of us sees the infinite beauty and goodness that is precisely who we are, deep down. I hope we will see the vision of our best selves and the path that will lead us to a life of righteousness, renewal, and peace.