Off the Pulpit

Jewish Narcissism

We remember Narcissus as a self loving fool who is drowned in a pool of his own reflection. We don’t always recall the fuller myth: that he rejected Eros, who in fury cursed him. The seer Tiresias predicted his fate – Narcissus would die if he came to know himself.

Greek literature teaches the double edged nature of being deeply acquainted with one’s own character. Despite the ancient Delphic admonition to know oneself, self knowledge is not always attractive or easy. Goethe wrote, “Know myself? If I knew myself I would run away.” There are part of ourselves that are not easy to know or, once known, are very hard to admire or to like.

Still, self-knowledge is both encouraged and praised by the masters of Jewish tradition. Teshuva, repentance, requires a recognition of one’s deeds and more deeply, of one’s dispositions and impulses. In the Talmud’s version of the Narcissus story (Nedarim 9b), the handsome man who sees his beautiful reflection pulls back and becomes a Nazir, one who has rededicated himself to God. “If a man knows who he is,” wrote the great Chasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim, “he is not frightened of anyone.” Knowing you are in the Divine image, you can face others – and truly face yourself – without fear.