"What do you suppose is in there?" he asked them.
"Nothing!" one child answered. "It's empty."
"A new car!" another shouted.
"An old, old Torah!" responded another.
"I know! I know," one child said, insistently. "It's a mirror!"
Each of the children was right. For Jews who are distant and disconnected from Judaism, the first child was right: The Ark is empty. Judaism is alien and barren of meaning and substance.
For others, Judaism holds only a superficial, aesthetic appeal. It's all bar mitzvah parties, bagels and lox on Sunday morning, and what we'll be wearing to Yom Kippur service this year. Religion as cultural entertainment -- a warm, ethnic sentimentality without ethical or spiritual demands.
For some, Judaism is a tired, old, depleted faith. They hear in it nothing important for a modern mind, and what they do hear is interpreted as misogynistic, racist or coldly legalistic.
contains a mirror,
reflecting the truth about ourselves
But for those who are prepared to look deeply and imaginatively, the Ark contains a mirror, reflecting the truth about ourselves, our values, our accomplishments and our limitations.
Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe, taught that the uniqueness of Chassidism was this: All Jews are taught, "You should not lie." Chassidim teach: "You should not lie to yourself." It is this reflexive turn, the turn inward, that characterizes the Kotzker's Torah. At a Tikkun Layl Shavuot years ago, my teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, proposed this reflexive turn as a way to hear the Ten Commandments anew. He turned each commandment inward and challenged us to look deeply into the mirror of Torah.
The Sixth Commandment, for example, teaches, "You shall not murder." Within this is the commandment, "You shall not murder yourself." What are all the ways we daily murder ourselves?
"You shall not steal...from yourself." When do we steal from ourselves? What do we steal? And how do we make restitution?
"You shall not commit adultery...against yourself." How have we adulterated ourselves, betraying sacred principles, practicing moral promiscuity and spiritual unfaithfulness?
"You shall not bear false witness...against yourself." When do we offer false testimony about ourselves? Or to ourselves? And why?
"You shall not covet...yourself." We covet when we simply cannot live, knowing that a neighbor has possessions and position that aren't ours. We covet ourselves when we simply cannot live without all that was once ours but is no more. What are the attachments to the past that hold us back from the present and the future?
"Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy." Where is the sanctified Sabbath within you? Where in your life is a place of peace, your haven and refuge from competition and conflict?
"Honor your father and mother...within you." What does it mean to carry a father's love or a mother's wisdom within? What has become of the fatherly and the motherly in each of us?
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." What were the promises and commitments we once made to ourselves that were subsequently broken, ignored or allowed to slip quietly into lazy neglect?
"You will have no other gods before Me...including yourself." When have we made of ourselves the measure of all things and the center of the universe?
"I am the Lord your God." Where is the image of God within us? What have we done with that precious gift?
This week, on the festival of Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the gift of Torah, the mirror of our souls. It is ours, but only if we are brave enough to look deeply and honestly within. Hag Sameach.
Special thanks to Sarah Alpert and Rabbi Harold Schulweis for their contributions to this column.
Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.