It’s not just me.
I know many people who share the feeling I get as we draw closer to the High Holy days. After all, our day in court is coming up shortly. Divine judgment will soon determine everything that is in store for us. Jewish tradition makes us keenly aware that our fate hangs in the balance as we hear the sound of the shofar blown every morning at daily services.
So this is a time for introspection. I want to be honest with myself and reflect on my failings. I want to see myself for who I really am. Ever since I was a little boy and had a great rabbi who inspired me more than any other, I took to heart his admonition that in the Jewish month of Elul, right before Rosh Hashanah, our primary obligation is to look into the mirror and reflect upon the difference between who we are and who we could become.
With thoughts of “looking into the mirror,” I was surprised learning from the New York Times of a new movement gaining increasing popularity known as "mirror fasts."
As a response to the increasing narcissism of contemporary society which values vanity and egotistical self-absorption above so many ideals, people who commit to "mirror fasts" take a vow of abstinence from gazing on their reflections for a period of time, be it for a day, a week, or in some cases even longer.
One devotee, who abstained from looking into a mirror for a year, motivated herself with the slogan "Mirror, mirror… off the wall." Others chose the mantra "Stop reflecting only on your reflection."
“Mirror fasts” are a way of reminding ourselves that the real "me" is far different than what appears in the mirror.
And what did mirror fasts accomplish? The majority of those who attempted it shared the sentiments expressed by a 29-year-old sociology graduate student in San Francisco, Kjerstin Gruys: “All the other interesting things in my life – my goals, passions, friends, family, favorite hobbies, etc. – have attracted the energy and attention I used to give to my looks.”
Yet another practitioner who has gone on two month-long mirror fasts in the last two years summed up what she gained in these words: “It gave me a lot of serenity. I was surprised at how quickly I stopped worrying about how I looked, and if I wasn't thinking about it, I assumed no one else was either, which is actually true."
As an antidote to unbridled egotism, there seems to be valid reason to justify sabbaticals from self-absorption, to call a temporary halt to our overriding concern for physical appearance. It's a way of reminding ourselves that the real "me" is far different than what appears in the mirror. When the Torah says we are created in the image of God it refers to something far more significant than our face or figure; it is our soul that defines us and partaking of the Divine is far more beautiful than any reflection can capture.
For a moment I wondered why Judaism, with its wondrous insights into human nature and its countless laws meant to perfect us, has no echo of this "mirror fast" paradigm. But it quickly dawned upon me that we do have a parallel to this practice. It is not meant for observance during most of our days; it is simply too restrictive. But those who have suffered the loss of a loved one know when it comes into play.
During shiva, the seven-day mourning period, the mirrors in the house of mourners must be covered. Mourners are not supposed to take note of their reflection. With the awareness of mortality our thoughts must be directed away from physical appearance, even as we must emphasize that the person who is no longer here physically still exists in the most meaningful way of all by way of his or her soul.
Appearances are misleading. And in the profoundest sense of all they are untruthful. They tell us only about external realities. They ignore the inner essence. And when we are forced to confront the death of those we deeply love, we have to vehemently reject their total disappearance simply because we no longer have an image of their corporeal presence.
The dead live on in the world of souls which no mirror is able to capture.
In the presence of death, mourners are required by Jewish law to observe a “mirror fast" to regain a proper sense of priorities. Being starkly reminded that our days on earth are limited, our values must be redirected from the transient and ephemeral world of the physical to the far more significant everlasting life of the spiritual.
In Hasidic tradition there is a beautiful story 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. Poor, you saw other people and felt compassion for them. Rich – covered 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.”
The rabbi is conveying a powerful lesson about the danger of wealth leading to self-absorption, and self-absorption creating the narcissism which can blind us to the needs and the presence of others.
Although I don't plan to go on a "mirror fast" – I still need a vivid reminder about the spinach stuck between my teeth before I go out – I'll try to look at myself far more from a spiritual perspective. I know that what I really have to check out is the condition of my soul – the way I deserve to be judged by God when He looks at my actions rather than the way I present myself to others who evaluate me by my outward appearance.
And for that I don't need a mirror. I just have to have a great deal of spiritual reflection.