Torah Musings: Facing Ourselves


Facing Ourselves

Sarah Pachter

According to Google, women look in the mirror an average of 71 times a day! In the bathroom, at work, at the gym—and who isn’t guilty of sneaking a peak by a storefront window? The mirror is just a reflective piece of glass that shows us an image of ourselves, yet we obsessively gaze at and scrutinize our face, eyes, and imperfections. Is this pure vanity? Or could there be something deeper behind the concept of reflections?

Let us look into a seemingly unrelated topic, the luchot, for the answer. If the tablets were so holy and written by G-d Himself, why would Moshe break them? We have heard the story so many times that we are no longer shocked by this seeming act of defiance and rage. Moshe’s role was to teach the Jewish people and pass on the Torah for future generations. Shattering the tablets seems antithetical to his role, and at face value, a disgrace to Hashem’s honor.

Today, we have tremendous respect for our Sefer Torahs and holy books. If someone accidentally drops a Chumash or siddur, we immediately pick it up and offer a kiss to its cover. If one were to accidentally drop a Sefer Torah, they would fast!

Yet immediately after breaking the tablets, rather than expressing remorse, Moshe asks G-d to see His face. (Shemot 33:18) On the surface, this request seems quite brazen. No one is allowed to see Hashem’s face. And Moshe’s timing—right after breaking the luchot—seems terrible.

In order to understand this incident, it is helpful to compare it to another incident dealing with Moshe, G-d, and reflections. During their first encounter at the burning bush, Hashem calls down, “Moshe, Moshe…and Moshe said hineni—here I am.” (Shemot 3: 1-12) G-d asks Moshe to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Rather than acquiescing, Moshe supplies excuses. He offers his brother as a leader and brings up his speech impediment. Hashem insists, and, ultimately, He wins. Directly after this encounter, Moses hides his face, afraid to gaze towards G-d (Shemot 3:4).

At first glance, it seems these two “face” experiences should be reversed. Moshe should have asked to see G-d’s face upon their initial encounter at the burning bush, and hidden his face in shame after breaking the tablets.

The circumstances become even more complex if you compare G-d’s punishments (or lack thereof) following Moshe’s breaking of the tablets to the infamous moment when Moshe hit the rock in the desert. G-d did not punish Moshe for breaking the stone tablets, yet He punished him severely for striking a rock in order to provide water for the parched Jewish people. One might argue that providing water for the Jewish people in the desert could have been considered pikuach nefesh—saving the life of another—a mitzvah that for which you can desecrate Shabbat. However, G-d determines that hitting the rock will prohibit Moshe from entering the land of Israel (Bamidbar 20:8).

How could hitting a rock—which did not encompass Hashem’s name—lead to such a severe punishment, while breaking the tablets elicits no reaction?

Let’s examine Moshe’s intentions surrounding the shattering of the tablets. Imagine a king is engaged to be wed. A date has been set, and the formal contract is written up. He leaves town before the wedding with the assumption that upon his return they will have the formal ceremony. When he arrives home, he discovers that his soon-to-be wife has been involved in illicit behavior. Outraged, the king declares a severe punishment for his betrothed. His advisor comes running towards him and says, “Please don’t be upset!! It’s not technically adultery because you are not officially married yet. I will rip up the contract, and you can start anew!”

Similarly, Mount Sinai was our “wedding” to G-d. Hashem saw the Jews committing idolatry when we should have been preparing to receive the Torah—our formal wedding. Hashem was outraged and wanted to destroy us. Moshe begged G-d to abandon this idea by pleading, “Wait! don’t harm them! I’m breaking the luchot (marriage contract). You are not yet married yet, so technically they did nothing wrong.” (Shemot 3:1- 4:18)

But the reason for Moshe’s destruction of the tablets goes even deeper.

When G-d saw that the Jews were worshipping the Golden Calf, He became angry and wanted to destroy the Jewish people and rebuild a new nation solely from Moshe. Moshe did something outrageous in response. He broke the tablets, essentially saying, “Now you can’t start a new nation from me because I’m just like them. I’m also sinning. The Jewish nation and I are one.” His love for the Jewish people was so strong that he was willing to give up both his physical and spiritual life so that we may have ours. This is what a true leader is.

This is quite a transformation! When G-d originally called upon Moshe by the burning bush, Moshe didn’t think he was capable of leading us out of Egypt and pleaded with G-d not to get involved. Years later, he became so connected to the Jewish people that he was willing do anything for them.

At the burning bush, the Torah even hints that Moshe will one day reach his potential by listing his name twice. There are only three other examples in the Torah when a person’s name is repeated in such a manner (Noach, Avraham, and Terach).

Anytime the Torah repeats someone’s name this way, it represents the two parts inherent in every person. One is the earthly, physical image, and the other is the image in shamayim of who we are supposed to become at the end of our lives. The question we must ask ourselves is: Do these images match? Do they reflect one another the way a mirror would reflect an object, or are they disappointingly different?

When the Torah duplicates the language of a person’s name, it indicates that the two images were a perfect match.

A story is told about the Netziv, a famous commentator on the Torah, which illustrates this concept beautifully. When the Netziv was a young boy, he had difficulty in school. One evening, he overheard his parents speaking with dismay over what would become of him. They agreed he would have to be trained as a shoemaker, a lowly profession at the time, rather than a scholar.

That night, the Netziv dreamt that he had passed away, and in Olam Haba Hashem asked him, “Where were your books? Where are your commentaries?”

The Netziv responded, “What do you mean? Here are my shoes. I made a parnassah, I gave much tzedakah, but I was no scholar.”

Hashem replied in dismay, “No! You were supposed to be the Netziv, a great scholar. Look at all these sefarim…they were supposed to be yours.”

This dream shook the Netziv to his core, leading to a spiritual awakening which propelled him to fulfill his mission on Earth.

We all have a purpose, and no one else can achieve our individual life goal. Only our neshamah has the power to do what we need to do, and the choice to match our two images is ours alone.

Just like Moshe, and just like the Netziv, we all have an image of who we are supposed to become. Are we meeting our potential? Are we fulfilling our dreams, or our purpose? Moses did, and we can, too. Perhaps this is what is meant when we say that every person has the potential to be like Moshe Rabbeinu. Certainly no one else will achieve prophecy and bring down the Torah. Yet, we can all become the best version of ourselves, bridging the gap between our higher and lower images.

A mirror is a physical representation of this spiritual concept. We can choose to use our reflection for introspection rather than merely gazing superficially at our image—71 times a day we have an opportunity to ask ourselves if we are fulfilling our mission! The next time you look in a mirror, take a moment to reflect on whether you are taking advantage of your time on this world, melding your physical and spiritual selves into one.