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The Mirror

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Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the “Besht,” founder of the Chassidic movement) taught: “Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, the image you perceive will also be flawless. But should you look upon your fellow man and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering – you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.”

We don’t need to look to modern psychology for an interpretation of the Besht’s outlook. We can find it in another of his teachings, the principle of “Particular Divine Providence” (hashgacha pratit). Nothing is by chance, the Besht would always stress. Every event in a person’s life is predetermined and purposeful, and an integral part of his divinely ordained mission in life. So a person never “chances” upon anything: if he witnesses an event or phenomenon, there is a reason for this experience, a reason that is closely tied to his own path in life. It therefore follows that if divine providence causes him to see his fellow’s degradation, it is for a positive and constructive end: to open his eyes to a failing of his own.

In The Eyes Of The Beholder

Ultimately, this is the only way a person can truly recognize and deal with his own imperfections. “Love covers up all sins,”[1] said the wisest of men, and what greater love is there than the love of self?

A person’s self-kinship blinds him to his own deficiencies. Yet a negative trait or deed, so innocent and justifiable in himself, appears in all its dreadfulness when discerned in others; here he cannot but be appalled at the depths to which his fellow has sunk.

So the most effective way to open a person’s eyes to the negative in himself is to show him what is wrong with his fellow and to then tell him that he, too, suffers from the same lack in one form or another. If he truly wishes to improve himself, if he truly searches his heart until he discovers what it is that the Almighty was pointing out to him by causing him to see what he saw, his self-love will no longer obscure what has been so glaringly presented to him in the person of his fellow.

Still, one may ask: A person’s mission in life involves not only the development and perfection of his own self and character but also his responsibility towards his fellow man. So why must he conclude that he is being shown his fellow’s failing as a message concerning his own personal state? Perhaps he is being prompted

by divine providence to rebuke and rehabilitate his fellow?

Particular Divine Providence

To answer this question, we must first take a closer look at the principle of “Particular Divine Providence.” Particular divine providence means that not only is every event purposeful, but also its every aspect and nuance.

For example, the same event can imply different things to different observers, depending on how much they know about the people involved and the events that led up to it. Divine providence is particular in that it shows each observer precisely what is applicable to him. So if you witness an event, it stands to reason that everything about it, including the particular way in which it has affected you, has a specific application to your life.

The same applies to a person’s witnessing of a negative act or behavior pattern on the part of his fellow. There are two distinct elements here: a) the fact of his fellow’s wrongdoing; b) his fellow’s guilt, culpability and decadence. The former does not necessarily imply the latter: one may be aware of what his fellow has done wrong, yet such knowledge may be accompanied with understanding, compassion and vindication.

So when G-d makes a person aware of his fellow’s deficiency for the sole reason that he can do something about it, this is all that person would perceive-the fact of his fellow’s problem and what he could do to resolve it. To also sense another’s guilt and lowliness is completely unnecessary; on the contrary, it only hinders his ability to reach out to him in a loving and tolerant manner.

Thus, if he also senses his fellow’s degradation, he must conclude that this aspect of the experience also serves a purpose. Divine providence has provided him with a mirror with which to discern his own shortcomings.

The Three Sons of Noah

This idea is expressed in the Torah’s account of Noah’s drunkenness and the response it evoked in his three children:

“Noah began to work the land, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and lay exposed in his tent.

Cham… saw the shame of their father, and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took the garment, placed it upon their shoulders, walked backwards, and covered the shame of their father; their faces were backward, and the shame of their father they did not see.[2]”

What is meant with the words “the shame of their father they did not see”? Do we not already know this from the (twice-repeated) fact that they turned “their faces backward”? But the Torah wishes to stress that the different ways in which the sons of Noah reacted to the knowledge that their father lay drunk and exposed in his tent mirrored their own spiritual states.

Cham’s own decadence was reflected in his vision of his father’s debasement. But when Shem and Japeth were made aware of their father’s state, their reaction lay solely in what they must now do to correct the situation: not only did they avoid physical sight of their father’s degradation, they also did not perceive his guilt or disgrace. The shame of their father, they simply did not see.[3]

This is an excerpt from “Beyond the Letter of the Law” by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life Center.


[1.] Proverbs 10:12.
[2.] Genesis 9:20-23
[3.] From an address by the Rebbe, Tishrei 27, 5726 (October 23, 1965).

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