There is a famous Primo Levi story that tells the story of Timoteo, a man who was a mirror maker like his father and grandfather before him. By day, he made regular, ordinary mirrors — those that reflect the truthful image of the world. And by night, he made all different types of mirrors that distorted what was reflected back. Among the cadre of mirrors that he developed was the metamir, the most interesting and most ambitious mirror of his collection. This mirror reproduces the image as it is seen by the person who stands before you.
Testing out the mirror, Timoteo first stood next to a wall. As he looked into the mirror, he saw an already balding thirty-year-old with a witty, dreamy, slightly neglected air. Next, he brought the mirror to a woman whom he had been pursuing. He looked into the mirror, in her presence, and saw he was bald, his lips hung half open in a foolish smirk that revealed his rotten teeth and his expression was the opposite of dreamy. He continued testing out the mirror, including with his mother. And again, in her presence, a completely different image was reflected back to Timoteo than he had seen before. Each time he brought the mirror to someone else, the image changed, based on how they saw him.
What an incredible opportunity this mirror provided! One could see oneself according to how others see him. And yet, no one wanted to buy this mirror. The story ends with Timoteo unable to sell his innovative mirror, and thus returning to the pursuit of creating mirrors that reflected the truthful image of the world.
Which mirror would you choose: the ordinary reality reflecting mirror or the mirror that reflects your image as perceived by your nearest companion?
In our parashah this week, parashat Shelach Lecha, the spies choose the metamir, and chaos ensues as a result. As the Israelites are preparing for the final leg of their journey toward the Promised Land, twelve spies are sent to “scout out” the land. The spies had specific questions they were to answer upon their return: Are the people who dwell there strong or weak? Few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? and so forth (Bamidbar 13: 18-20). Yet, the report that ten of the twelve spies delivered went beyond what they were asked and included how the spies perceived themselves amid the inhabitants of the land. The spies cry out “we saw the Nephilim there … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Bamidbar 13:33). Upon hearing this news, chaos broke out in the camp. There was pandemonium as the Israelites declared that they would have been better off returning to Egypt than going forward to conquer the land.
And yet, what caused such an outcry? Not any statement on behalf of the inhabitants of the land, but rather the spies’ perception of how they were seen by others. And thus reveals the greatest downfall of the ten spies; a failure to look in the mirror and see themselves for who they truly are and believe in themselves. In truth, as the Israelite narrative goes on, we learn that other nations are intimidated by the Israelites and perceive them as a strong, mighty, unconquerable people.
We, like the spies, get caught up in moments of anxiety and fear, and see ourselves as we think others see us. We take out the proverbial metamir, and imagine how those in our company see us — and focus on the imperfections we imagine they see and allow our insecurities to take root.
What if the spies had seen themselves for who they were — members of a great and mighty nation, a nation that was armed with God’s promise of a successful end to the journey? What if they saw the others before them as grasshoppers and themselves as giants? They might not have missed out on the beauty and wonder of entering into the Promised Land.
What do we miss out on, when we get stuck looking through the metamir and forget to see ourselves for who we truly are? What might happen if we stop worrying about how others see us and we focus on how we see ourselves … and work on seeing ourselves even better?
Perhaps that is why the metamir never took root … but mirrors will never go out of style. Take a look in the mirror; it might just give you the push you need to reach your dreams and enter your own Promised Land.