Here are the sins people commit in elevators: Soiling inside the car with trash, dog droppings or worse, graffiti, scratching and damaging the surfaces, stealing light fixtures, damaging and removing signs, damaging controls, jamming the door’s photoelectric beam with chewing gum, and squirting glue into the lock cylinders. I know this because of my fishing buddy who is in the elevator business. He also told me that research shows people vandalize elevators a lot less if they see themselves when they are doing it. I read the study. It’s true. The sins of the elevator practically disappear when the would-be vandals see themselves about to commit the crime. People who really see themselves, usually behave a lot better.
Most people understand that looking ourselves over on the outside--searching for lumps and strange moles--can save our lives. What we don’t always realize is that looking ourselves over the way we are supposed to tonight can save our marriages, our families, our friendships, our souls and our spiritual lives. Tonight, we are commanded by 3,000 years of Jewish tradition, commanded by our prayer book, commanded by God, to consider, to understand, and to reckon with the power of the mirror; the power of really seeing ourselves.
We are all pretty good at judging others. But we have such a hard time seeing our own pettiness, contempt, stubbornness, arrogance, fear, weakness, foolishness, anger, dismissiveness, and brokenness. Tonight, calls for brutal honesty. Like the waiter who approaches the table and the elderly Jewish man asks, “Would you mind telling me how the chicken is prepared.”
To which the waiter responds, “We tell him right up front he’s not going to make it.”
Tonight calls for tough questions. Don’t leave Erev Rosh Hashanah services and allow the only questions on the car ride home to be, “What did you think of the rabbi? What did you think of his sermon?” Ask better questions. Examine yourself as if in front of a mirror reflecting your soul. Examine yourself like an attorney who knows the tricks and the deceit of your own mind. Be hard and precise and unflinching in your cross examination. Look deep beneath the surface of your life so that you see and you know and you steer clear of that on which you will run aground and founder. Go into the deep valleys of your private life and let these be your questions: Where did I fail? Of what am I ashamed? Tonight may we be brave enough to stare into the mirror of our souls and to banish the would-be vandal that lurks within us all.
The High Holy Days begin with a Torah portion that says: “V’HaElohim nisah et Avraham--and God put Abraham to the test.” This Torah portion the rabbis chose to begin the High Holy Days is about God testing, examining Abraham; not in his public persona, but in how he measured up as a husband and a father. And he failed that test in the most terrible and painful way by agreeing to sacrifice his son on the altar of his own blind faith, self-interest and ambition.
The most moving test of character I know of is told by a man who went to Israel with a group of businesspeople and had an audience with Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the head of the Mir Yeshiva. Rabbi Finkel was severely afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. He sat down at the head of the table, and naturally everyone’s inclination was to look away, not wanting to embarrass him.
“Who can tell me the lesson of the Holocaust?” the rabbi asked. He banged on the table, “Gentleman, look at me, and look at me right now.” His speech was affected by his disease even more than his body. It was hard to look at the rabbi and even harder to listen to him. “I have only a few minutes for you. Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?”
The rabbi called on one guy who didn’t know what to do. He felt like a school boy. Finally the guy says, “We must never forget.” And the rabbi completely dismissed him. Everyone was slinking under the table and looking away thinking please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me. He called on another guy who gave a fantastic answer, “We will never, ever again be victims or bystanders.”
The Rabbi said, “You guys just don’t get it. Okay gentleman, let me tell you the lesson of the Holocaust. You know that most people were transported in the worst, most inhumane way in cattle cars. They thought they were going to a work camp. We know they were going to a death camp. After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps.
"The doors slid wide open and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. Those not killed immediately went off to sleep in barracks. As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, ‘Am I going to stretch out the blanket as best I can over the five other people who did not get one or am I going to pull it completely over myself to stay warm?’ It was during that defining moment that we learned the true power or the true weakness of a person’s spirit. The blanket was a kind of mirror to the soul. That is the lesson of the Holocaust. Now, take your blanket back to America and spread it over other people.”
Three thousand years ago Abraham was tested. Less than a century ago nearly every Jew in Europe was tested. Tonight all of us will be tested, challenged, examined. Or at least we ought to be…by the one who often finds it the most difficult of all to see us clearly; ourselves.
Many Shabbat mornings I stand before B’nei Mitzvah to bless them in front of their parents, the open ark, the Torah and God. I remind them that being a good person when you are a child is a lot easier than being a good person when you are an adult. Then I ask them to look deeply into their parents’ eyes and to remember, to remember what their parents look like in that supreme moment, tears in their eyes, the proudest of smiles, hearts full of gratitude. I implore them, when they are tempted to lose their way, to turn their back on the Torah, be less than they are, to remember their parents’ faces, their tears and smiles, and then behave in a way they know would make their parents proud.
I look in the mirror every morning—into my sometimes discouraged, sometimes optimistic, sometimes exhausted, sometimes joyful, flawed, foolish, arrogant, kind, loving, impatient eyes--and I see not only me, but my father too looking back at me. My face is now the face of my father that I recall from when I was a little boy and he is looking at me and he is asking me, have I behaved, have I achieved, have I been true to everything he taught me about being a man? It would be easier to turn away, but the mirror is me, it is my father, it is God and Torah all asking me who I really am.
The Chassidic Rabbi Elimelech said:
When I die and stand in the court
of justice, they will ask me if I had been as just as I should have.
I will answer no.
Then they will ask me if I had been as charitable as I should
I will answer no.
Did I study as much as I should have?
Again, I will answer no.
Did I pray as much as I should have?
And this time, too, I will have to give the same answer."
Then the Supreme Judge will smile and say: "Elimelech, you spoke the truth. For this you shall enter heaven."
Tonight we stand before the Supreme Judge by standing before ourselves with unflinching courage and asking: Who am I—really? In those defining moments of my life—those mirrors to my soul--who am I? And in the year to come, will I strive with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might, to be better, and spread my blanket over others?
Love, Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova,