Friday, February 25, 2011

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Back in my school days, I had my own mirror. It was one of those antique free-standing ones, with carved pillars and a base, between which swung an oval glass. It tossed my reflection at me like a kiss that called, "C'mon over!" And back then, subliminally yet, it began to bug me that the ubiquitous looking-glass called to me from every angle in my room.

Just at that time, Cindy showed up in my dreams. I'd recently switched from public school to a private Jewish Day School. The kids were palpably richer than my previous classmates. And they were also on the cutting edge of all that was new. Back then, anorexia and bulimia were new. By sixteen, I knew of only one girl who starved her body living off her own flesh, and who vomited the food she'd been unable to resist. But in my new school, there were numerous young women dying to be thin.
By sixteen, I knew of only one girl who starved her body. In my dream though, Cindy was compelled neither to starve her body nor to gag her food. She was addicted to her mirror. It was a far cry from the antique my grandmother had given me. Hers was a round one that fitted into the palm of her hand. Her fear that she did not exist came upon her like waves upon the beach. And whenever it did, she'd pull out the mirror to confirm that, yes, she was here. As time went by, the waves bashed more frequently and more violently upon her being. She'd shake and sweat, and surreptitiously open her palm, trembling for a fix.
It was after French class that I approached her. The Highveld grass glared yellow under the winter sun.
"Cindy," I said. "I've seen what's happening…With the mirror..."
She turned abruptly from me, brittle as the grass.

"Cindy, look. You exist! Don't you get it? You are real. You don't need the mirror to prove that."
Hands quivering, she opened her palm, sucking in her image. The sweat on her upper lip swelled.

"Here, I'll show you. Let me take it from you, just for a moment – so you can see. You exist without it!"

My voice shook too as I reached to pry the mirror from her hands.
"No," she spat. "No, No!" clamping her palm shut.
As she did so, the mirror fell, in slow motion. And as it shattered, the shards fractured into the craggy peeks of a Chinese landscape. Cindy and I were falling through the cliffs. I sat up out of the dream. In the morning, I asked my Dad if he could put the mirror elsewhere in the house.
That didn't stop me from wondering whether in fact he loved me. Remember the yellow daisies? "He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me…" Seems to me I played it first fresh out of kindergarten. Kids on the crescent gathered under the Eucalyptus tree at the bottom of our garden. We'd lick gum off the bark, or sit in the tree-house (a plank of wood between the branches), or rock on the rubber-tire swing. As I swung, I'd pluck the petals to check just whether "he" loved me. By my early teens, I'd traded the tree and its sticky gum for lip-gloss, and jeans so tight we'd have to lie down on the bed and have a friend help close the zipper. Not that I knew any "he," mind you. But that didn't stop me from wondering whether in fact he loved me – or not. Through all those "zipping-ups," I was oblivious to the cultural component of my actions. Until my dream that is. It awakened me to some of the unconscious tides that compelled me and pummeled my own beaches. It was the burgeoning of my consciousness that we, women in particular, are driven by mirrors both physical and social.

Recently, surfing the web, I learned that if Barbie were a real person, her head in relation to her body would be the size of a golf ball, and she wouldn't be able to stand upright. Picture it, a woman with a head smaller than a fist crawling on all fours! And yet, that's what we give our little girls. "Here dear," we say, "a mirror for you, darling. Just the being you want to be when you grow up."
But does all this mean that gazing into a mirror renders us a "wicked stepmother" consumed with envy? Or a Narcissus besotted by his own image? What are we to do with our mirrors, with the seemingly inborn drive for beauty and concerns about the social mirror?
This week's Torah portion, Vayak'hel, offers a solution as deep and resonant as a reflection is shallow. It relates in great detail how we went about actually building the sanctuary. Moses collected gifts and contributions from the people: precious metals, richly dyed wools, reddened ram's skins and blue processed hides, acacia wood, olive oil, essences for reddened ram's skins and blue processed hides, acacia wood, olive oil, essences for fragrance, perfume incense, and rare stones.1 It was a veritable treasury. He then appointed the architects, and the building began – from the tapestries and beams to the ark, the table, lamp, and incense and sacrificial altars. The last of the utensils to be made was the washstand, a very large samovar with spigots from which the priests would draw water with which to wash their hands and feet before beginning their daily service. It was the last utensil made but the first to be used each day. Betzalel, the chief architect, made the washstand and its base "out of the mirrors of the dedicated women who congregated at the entrance of the Communion Tent."2

The women had brought numerous other offerings, most notably their jewelry. And they brought the mirrors. When I read these verses, I visualize myself in their shoes. Theirs was no costume jewelry. It's one thing to let go of my artsy pieces of faux stones and pewter but how would I feel giving over the pearl earrings my husband gave me in the bridal chamber after our chuppah, our first time alone? And theirs were no "made in China" dime-a-dozen cheapo mirrors. These were sheets of copper, polished to perfection. Rashi, our principal Biblical commentator, states on the above verse that "the women had mirrors in their hands."3 I sense the intimacy with which they held them. "They used them to adorn themselves," he says. I think of standing at my bedroom mirror. The kohl and lipstick, olive and golden eye-shadows, mascara and perfume lie in a purple beaded bowl I bought in Africa, their reflection shimmering in back. They and my mirror are my raw materials as I prepare for an evening with my husband. My mirror is dear to me. How much more so were their prized copper plates to my sisters in a vast and dry desert? Yet, says Rashi, "even these they did not hesitate to bring as offerings for the Sanctuary."
They lifted up their mirrors, each gazing at herself and her husbandYet, whilst Moses gladly accepted the rings and armbands, earrings and nose-rings, when he saw the mirrors piled upon the ground he rejected them. Why? Says the Talmud, mirrors are made for the evil inclination. I get that. They're all about "me, myself, I," my image feeding back at me an illusion, a reflected identity that, like Cindy's, can never fill the existential hollow of not being in touch with ones soul. And yet, surprise, G d disagreed. "He said to Moses, 'Accept them, for these are more precious to Me than all [the other gifts]' for through them the women set up the many congregations4 in Egypt. When their husbands returned from the harsh labor, they would go out and offer them food and drink, feeding them. They lifted up their mirrors, each gazing at herself and her husband in the mirror. Each enticed him with words, saying 'I am more beautiful than you.' In this way, they aroused their husbands, who would then be intimate with them. The women conceived and gave birth there (in Egypt). This is what is implied by the verse, 'I awakened you beneath the apple orchard.'5"6

What Rashi is teaching us is that we certainly can, and should, use our mirrors. But we must do so on G d's terms. This idea was reinforced for me on a ride in a New York subway. Its lines curve like choked intestines through the city's underbelly. Not my favorite place to be. Yet there, in the smelly car of a Dinkin's era train, the insight was brought home to me in the form of a poster ad. Picture it. An all-American tourist. He's got on the Hawaii shirt with the rainbow colored flowers, a camera slung diagonally across one shoulder, a water-bottle over the other. Khaki shorts to just above his knee and a khaki hat with the string dangling ‘round his neck. He's holding a fishing rod. And all around are plastic flowers and vines, kitsch imitations of the Amazon forest. The shot is promoting a design school. Its slogan reads, "Put your passion into a program." I get that too! G d has given us emotions and tendencies. There's no way to not feel love, or fear, or any of the feelings on our emotional palette. Our choice is to love worldly pleasures or love G d, to fear Him or live with neurosis and paranoia about everything else. The same applies to reflections. We can use them to seduce a stranger. Or we can use them to arouse our husbands.
As for the social mirror, that's important too. Queen Esther is praised for "finding favor in the eyes of all who saw her."7 But what others think of us is relevant only if it reflects what we stand for and the way we honor their dignity. The secret is that we attain the favor of others precisely when we free ourselves of kowtowing to public opinion. If our driving goal is to find popularity in the eyes of G d, then as dominoes knock each other, we will be beloved by others. People naturally respect authenticity, integrity, standing for what we believe in and walking the talk, even though they may not say so.
So here's to mirrors. Both the copper kind, and those cheapo Chinese ones. The antique, wooden full-frame ones and the palm-held miniatures. Here's to caring that we honor others and that our conduct please our Creator. Here's to putting our passion into a program, to having the guts to let go of the shallow, of the tinsel-town images and air-brushed shots on all those covers of all those glossies. Here's to ditching the idols of contemporary culture, the messages we are bombarded with from without, and living life from the inside-out.

1. Exodus 35:5-9
2. Exodus 38:8
3. Rashi on Exodus 38:8
4. Our sages make this association based on the word "tzva-ot" in the original verse. It is translated by Rashi as "the dedicated women." (Ibn Ezra translates it as "the craftswomen." Other translations include "the women who came to serve G d in prayer" and "the celebrated women.") If one rearticulates the vowels beneath the consonants, the word reads "tzivot" which means "a multitude of people" or "large crowd."
5. Song of Songs 8:5
6. Rashi continues by saying, "The washstand was made from them. It served to establish peace between husband and wife. (The priests) would draw from its waters for she whose husband suspected her of adultery" for just as the women in Egypt had used their mirrors for holy purposes, the waters held by their copper offerings were used to verify whether the suspected adulteress had directed her beauty to arouse her husband, or for unholy reasons.
7. Megillat Esther
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Thursday, February 10, 2011

How To Find Your Soul Mate?

It’s a compelling question. And I think the answers are relevant to all of us, whether we’re not yet married or even if we’ve found our soul mate.

Your soul mate isn’t someone outside of yourself. Sure, they’re an independent person but at the same time he or she is the other half of your true self. You were separated at birth. So when you’re looking for this person, you’ve got to do so as if you’re looking for a lost object ‘cos that’s just what this other person is…a “lost part” of your being. If you lost your grandma’s sapphire necklace or the key to the safe, you’d get out there and look for it, not wait for it to come to you.

And you’d keep at it ‘till you found it. King Solomon says, “The person who’s found a wife has found good.” Intrinsic to marriage is the notion of finding. So get in to a proactive headspace because seeking and finding is the point of departure.

Another thing to remember is that as you search, you have to look beyond what you first see. Before you checked in to this earthly plane of existence, in your spiritual source, you and your soul mate were radiant, clear, focused. But down here things are different. Life has a way of covering us with soot. There are a whole host of pressures that over time diminish the glow of the soul as it was on high. As a result, when you finally find your other half, you may not recognize them! The process of “finding” is about stuff that’s more than skin deep and you have to be willing to go to that place in order to discover who that person actually is.

Next, ask the right questions. Targeted questions are powerful mediums for detecting solutions in all arenas of life and none the less here. There are many but one key one is this, “Is this person’s vision in alignment with my vision?” Another way of saying that is, “Whom do you want to be married to when you’re 64? Eighty four?” Then work backwards. Marriage isn’t a one night stand.

And remember that the other person is not your “lollipop.” What do I mean by that? They don’t exist to make you feel good, to solve your problems…to serve you in any way. Marriage is much bigger than a means to physical and psychological gratification. Look for the person who can help you build a life, a home, help you create a space where life is lived as it’s meant to be and where the two of you can actualize the purpose for which you were created. Stop looking for the body and start looking for the person.

As I said, if you live from the outside-in you may not. Practice living from the inside-out.
If you can do that then it’s like recognizing yourself! You know intuitively when you connect with someone else. Our sages say marriage involves the knowing of the heart. It could make total sense on paper to marry someone but because this is not a business deal you have to move beyond just the intellectual knowing.

At the same time, and I know it’s very not PC to say this, settling is not a dirty word! Before you jump, don’t get me wrong. You do have to have feelings but today we’re holding out for deep romantic love. Hollywood has hijacked our hearts. We want a relationship and partner that doesn’t really exist. If you want to “get” who someone else is and if they’re right for you, you first have to divest yourself of your preconceptions and delusions. Otherwise they’ll blind you from what’s right in front of you. Sure, you need a spark. But don’t nix a guy ‘cos he laughs too loud or a gal ‘cos she’s not a size 0. Real people don’t come Photoshopped! When you rid yourself of your rules, expectations and preconceptions you’ll discover an entire world you haven’t noticed. And be much more open to knowing who someone else actually is and if they’re for you.

Biblically matches were made at watering holes. Isaac (through Eliezer) and Rebecca; Jacob and Rachel; Moses and Tzippora all met at wells. Today folks meet at watering holes too but now they’re the local bar.

The Torah GPS brings more lasting results. The well represents both the wisdom of Torah and the fact that you have to dig within in order to access the life giving waters you desire.
I’d say most importantly, don’t get into a relationship. Get into a marriage. Isaac married Rebecca “and then he loved her.” Today we “fall in love,” “get in to a relationship” and only then try figure out if we should get married! It’s much better to do it the other way round. Be real focused and clarify if this is the person for you. If yes, don’t wait. Get married.

Part of what that necessitates is, “Stay out of bed.” Sex is just too powerful. If you’re in a sexual relationship, it’ll blind you as to whether this is the right person for you. If you wait you’ll be forced to figure out the answer. And if the answer is, “No, you’re not mine,” then you’ll be able to get out and move on instead of spending months trying to extricate yourself from a painful dynamic.

In our culture, the power base has shifted. In a more modest era, women held the power. When it was the exception to not be a virgin, women had more say. Now that it’s the exception to be a virgin, men have the power. Getting in to bed is like throwing your GPS over the balcony of a rooftop. You don’t share a bank account, the keys to your car or your medical records – so why your body?! If you keep the focus on building a life rather than on feeding your ego or your body you have a much greater chance of actually creating the life you want.

(Thanks to Mark Pearlman for prompting me to put this down in writing. Mark runs JInsider and writes a column for The Jewish Week. He sent me these questions in anticipation of Valentine’s Day and sparked off a whole bunch of thoughts. I’d love to hear yours! So go ahead and comment below.)