I’ve been struck all week by a story from the Talmud. It’s told by Simon the Just. No one knows exactly when he lived, but folklore has him welcoming Alexander the Great to Jerusalem in the 4th century BCE.
One day there came to him ‘a man from the south, with beautiful eyes, good-looking, his hair finely arranged in curls.’ But he wanted to cut it all off and renew his vows as a Nazirite:
I asked him, ‘Why do you want to destroy this beautiful hair?’ He said, ‘I was shepherding my father’s flocks and went to draw water. When I saw my reflection in the stream, desire almost got the better of me…But I said to it: ‘Empty-head! Why be so proud in a world which isn’t yours, where your end will be worms?’ (Talmud, Nazir 4b)
The story initially reminded me of Hamlet’s advice to the actors who visit Elsinore on the purpose of art:
to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Act 3, Scene 2)
I can’t be the only one who can think of a lot of people in positions of power who could do with looking carefully at their own features.
But the first person who needs to consider their reflection is always our own self. It’s not just water which can show us our image. Being with refugees has made me see myself in different ways. (Next week is refugee week) I was going to hold my wife’s hand during bensching, the grace after meals, as I often do. Then I wondered: but the Ukrainian women at the table are worrying all day long about their husbands stuck in the fighting. Might I be breaking the rabbinic rule of lo’eg larash, mocking the poor, understood metaphorically as insensitively doing something in the presence of another person who’s prevented by circumstances or disability from doing the same?
Then a young man from Somalia said, when I offered him more food, ‘Crossing the desert I got used to eating once in two days.’ I saw in that moment how much I take my plenty for granted. I wondered what I must look like in his eyes, and felt ashamed.
What do we do when we see our own reflection in such ways?
That’s when I realised that the Talmudic story is in fact a Jewish version of the myth of Narcissus.
Narcissus fails to requite the love of the broken-hearted mountain nymph Echo. Taking Echo’s part, the goddess Nemesis punishes Narcissus for his callousness by making him fall in love with his own reflection in the water which, in some versions, he leans forward to kiss and is drowned.
It’s a powerful metaphor for humanity today. Here we are, looking at our own image: are we so in love with ourselves in our anthropocentric universe that all we can see are our own power, skills, achievements and desires? If so, we are liable to fall beneath the spell of Nemesis.
Or do we say like the young man who comes before Simon the Just: what am I doing on this earth which isn’t mine, where I’m a temporary resident, a passer-through and pilgrim? What can I contribute? How can I serve? What good can I achieve for the children and the future of this world?