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Noach: Looking at Yourself Through Others

Noach: Looking at Yourself Through Others

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The weekly reading that speaks of Noach, as interpreted in Chassidus, contains several psychological insights which are highly relevant today. As we all know, the best psychology is found in the Torah (because HaShem is the best psychologist; as the Torah states, “I am G‑d your Healer” — physically and spiritually).

The majority of Parshas Noach talks about the story of the Flood. Before HaShem brought the flood upon the world, he gave Noach specific instructions as to how to go about preparing for it. One of the things he was told was that he should take seven males and seven females of each of the kosher animals, and two each of the animals that are not kosher, and place them in the ark.

Commentaries ask why the Torah uses the roundabout expression “the animals which are not pure” to refer to the non-kosher animals. Generally, the Torah is very concise and sparing in its use of words. Thus, when discussing the various varieties of kosher birds and animals, the Torah always enumerates those that are fewer, so that it lists the non-kosher birds, because they are fewer than the kosher ones, and it therefore has to use fewer words, whereas when listing kosher animals, the Torah enumerates the kosher ones because they are fewer, and therefore fewer words need to be used. The rule is that the Torah almost always uses the minimum amount of words to say the maximum amount of things. Accordingly, since it is much easier to say “the impure animals,” rather than “the animals which are not pure,” why does the Torah use the latter expression, which, in Hebrew, is all of eight letters longer than the former. Remember that whole reams of Halachah are deduced by the Gemara from the presence or absence of a single letter!

Rashi explains that this is to teach a person that he should always strive to use clean language, to speak in a refined way. In other words, since calling a non-kosher animal “impure” is not complimentary, it is preferable to call it “an animal which is not pure.”

In the Western culture that many of us grew up in, we were taught that you call a spade a spade; you call things by their names and you don’t mince words. You must say things outright, and you must be forthright. But in the Torah it is not always regarded as a virtue to say things the way they are. This does not mean that one should lie, G‑d forbid. But one can say the same thing in many different ways, some of them positive, and some of them negative.

For example, if you have to explain something to a person, you can say it very coarsely, or you can get your same point across by saying it in completely different, much more pleasant words. The person will understand you just as well, but meanwhile you didn’t contaminate your mouth. Your mouth was kept pure, because you were careful which words went out of it. Just like we have to be careful what goes into our mouths, in terms of kosher food, etc., the same way we have to be careful about what comes out of our mouths. This is easy enough to understand.

The matter goes even deeper than that, however. The Rebbe says that just as the Torah teaches us that we must be careful with the way we speak, in the same parshah the Torah also teaches us that we must take care regarding what we look at.

Of course, you cannot always control what you see. However, the problem is not what you see; the problem is what you look at! You cannot walk around with your eyes closed, but once something questionable pops into your range of vision, don’t look again. Peeking a second time is called looking, not seeing. This again is radically different from Western Culture which claims that television, for example, doesn’t harm you, because of course you realize that television is not real. You can look at anything; you are an intelligent person.

The parshah mentions that Noach planted a vineyard, and when the grapes matured, he made wine and became drunk. He fell asleep and as often happens when people are drunk, he became unconscious of what he was doing. He became uncovered, and lay in his tent in a manner which was very un-tzniusdik, very immodest. (There are laws of modesty and proper decorum for men too.) As you know, Noach had three sons, Shem, Cham and Yefes. Canaan, Cham’s son, saw Noach lying in his tent, and instead of covering his grandfather, he went off to tell the news. “Hey, guess what I just saw! Did you see what Zeidie is doing? He’s lying naked in his tent.” He made a big joke and hullabaloo about it.

When Shem and Yefes heard that their father had gotten drunk and was lying exposed in an immodest way, they didn’t talk about it; they wouldn’t think that it was something to discuss, let alone make public. They both immediately went into the tent to cover their father. Now, the Torah notes that when they went in to cover him, they went in backwards. They didn’t go in so that they could see; they knew he was lying there, so they went in backwards, facing the other way, with a sheet or whatever, and they covered him without ever looking at their exposed father, and walked out. The Torah then concludes the incident with the words, “They did not see their father’s nakedness.”

Now the Rebbe asks the question, “When they walked backwards in order to cover their father, and their faces were turned, isn’t it obvious that they were not going to see his nakedness? If you are not looking, you don’t see! So why does the Torah need to mention the obvious?”

The Rebbe explains that these two incidents, about the unkosher animals and the incident about covering Noach, teach a person a very fundamental lesson in interpersonal relationships — how to avoid speaking bad things about other people, and how to avoid seeing bad things in other people.

The Rebbe quotes a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov in this regard. The Baal Shem Tov says that when a person sees evil in another person, he is really being shown the evil in himself. The other person is simply a mirror which reflects the image of the person looking into it. You see something bad in another person because you have that same negative quality in some form or another. True, the negative quality may be manifested in you in a different or more subtle way, but HaShem is showing it to you so that you can correct that same problem in yourself. If you are the kind of person who always sees negative things in other people, that is a red light. It means that you have a lot of work to do on yourself. When you look into a mirror, if your face is clean, you don’t see dirt in the mirror. But if you see dirt on the face of the person in the mirror, you need to wash your face, not the mirror.

However, there is something puzzling about this teaching of the Baal Shem Tov: Why must we say that when one sees something negative in his fellow Jew, it means that he himself has that trait in some degree and that he has to do teshuvah or refine himself? Why can’t we say that it’s because one has to help that person do teshuvah? Perhaps that is why HaShem showed me his negative traits, because I have to teach him to mend his ways. Why do I have to berate myself and assume that it is due to my own evil?

The Rebbe points out that it is human nature to immediately notice deficiencies in others, but it takes a long time to become aware of deficiencies in oneself. There is a verse that states that, “Love covers all flaws.” A similar English expression is, “Love is blind.” When there is love you do not see faults. When you are in love with someone, they are perfect. A mother doesn’t see her child’s flaws, a wife who’s in love doesn’t see her husband’s deficiencies. If this is true of one person’s love for another, how much more so is this true with self-love. Self-love is the strongest love of all. When a person is in love with himself, he finds it very difficult to really see his own shortcomings. How does HaShem get you to become aware of the deficiencies in yourself? By letting you see them in another person. We can even prove this by citing a well-known phenomenon. Whenever the Rebbe speaks at a farbrengen about something negative, everybody thinks he means some other person. No one thinks, “He means me.” It’s easier to think, “I’m OK. The Rebbe is obviously referring to what’s-his-name.” So HaShem shows you in a round about way that you need some self-improvement.

Now, the Rebbe says, there’s still a question. We know that one of the foundations of Yiddishkeit is rebuking another person. This is one of the mitzvos of the Torah. You are required to rebuke someone who is not acting as he should. Of course, there are rules governing this — you may not embarrass him and your rebuke should be discreet and loving. It is a part of Torah to try to help other people mend their ways. So why are we saying that there is another reason for seeing the evil in another person — so that you can rectify it in yourself? Perhaps we are seeing this negative quality in order to rectify it in the person in whom it is manifested, the other fellow! However, the Rebbe explains that HaShem doesn’t want to make any Jew an intermediary. In other words, HaShem wanted things to happen in a direct way. HaShem didn’t want this meeting between you and the other person to be only for the sake of the other person who has to do teshuvah.

In other words, there is essentially a two-fold purpose in meeting a person and seeing the evil in him. One aspect of this meeting is to truly help the other person to improve himself. However, the fact that the Torah points out in the story of the sons of Noach that not only were their faces turned backwards, but also they didn’t see the evil teaches us about ourselves.

There is a simple test which will clarify which lesson HaShem intends to convey to us: If the first reaction upon seeing this flaw in the other person was, “Oy, how bad this person is. Just look at her. Such terrible behavior…” If your reaction is like Cham — to talk about it, and tell people, “Look what happened, look at this person, she’s so this, she’s so that… can you believe it?!” — then you’re not interested in helping the other person. Accordingly, you should know that you yourself have the same problem, albeit in a different way, and you had better look into yourself and do teshuvah. We see that Shem and Yefes didn’t talk about the problem, they acted — and covered their father’s nakedness.

We see the Rebbe’s reaction to people who do not yet keep Torah and mitzvos — he treats them with love and with kindness. When a tzaddik meets a person who does not keep Shabbos, who eats treif and doesn’t wear a yarmulke, he views this person in terms of his potential. This person is going to do teshuvah. True, he hasn’t yet done every mitzvah, but if you hate him for that, he will never do teshuvah. On the other hand, if you show him love and kindness, then he’ll want to do teshuvah. A tzaddik looks at a person who transgressed, not as an evil person to be rejected, but as a person who is longing to do teshuvah. He doesn’t see evil, only the potential good, the potential baal teshuvah.

People who are not on the level of a tzaddik will see evil and will talk about it, and they may even try to push away the person in whom they see evil, for that will show how pious they are. But the truth is that on a different level they have exactly the same blemish, the same sin.

In contrast, when you noticed this lack in the other person, if your reaction was, “Hey, something has got to be done to help him” — in other words, the emphasis was not on the evil, but rather on the tikkun, on the rectification of the person for his sake, then it is clear that the reason you saw the evil was so that you could help to rectify him or her.

Incidentally: It is true that elsewhere the Torah does use a blunt expression for “unkosher.” The Rebbe explains that when the Torah is teaching the laws of kashrus it has to state the law in the clearest possible way, and therefore it uses the more direct, although less complimentary term. Here in the story of Noach, however, we are not teaching Halachah, which animals are kosher and which animals are not, and therefore the Torah uses extra words, in order to avoid saying something derogatory.

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Kate Gladstone April 1, 2014

So ... Then everybody who looked at Hitler and didn't think "Hitler needs help; he longs for teshuvah" is also evil like Hitler? Reply

victor silvar Wilton, Ct October 26, 2011

am glad I read this article, But if you see dirt on the face of the person in the mirror, you need to wash your face, not the mirror Reply

Anonymous Harahan, LA/USA via chabadneworleans.com December 2, 2010

great title As I read thru this article, I was delighted to come across with your observations. We are called to love G-d with all over heart soul and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. As we do this our lives will reflect a purity that would not otherwise be there had we not been touched by Him. We must reflect upon our thoughts and actions that they might be pleasing.... Reply

Hadassa Aurora, CO October 23, 2010

Thanks I am glad I read this article, because I wasn't going to. I am thankful because I see where I myself need much work and when I see certain things in other people I feel sorry for them and sometimes it makes me sad. It' hard to not get caught up in negative conversations concerning certain things, especially when it;s always around you. Your article make me even more so humbled because who am I to think that I am better because you do this or that and I don't. So thanks for reminding me again to keep my judegmental eyes to myself, cause I can only work on me. I do believe however, that God shows you things about other people not to critize or judge them, but to lift them up in prayer. I am 31 and never really had good relationships with women, and I want to work on me so that I can be a better example. So thanks for your article. Reply

Jan Schulman Oxnard, California October 25, 2009

we're not all criminals... i do have a problem with the idea that if we find fault in others it's because it reflects a fault of our own. i certainly find fault with thieves and murderers, and, for example, bernie madoff. but i am not a madoff (i certainly didn't get to live his life style...smiles...). or a thief. or a murderer. yet i do find fault and sit in judgment of them. i believe it's when we find fault with everyone BUT ourselves that we are fooling ourselves. it's like prejudice. it makes the bigot feel better to point a finger at someone else and claim they are less than he. basically, you are making someone lower so that you can be higher. we need to be careful; it's what the nazi's did to make themselves supermen; it's what the KKK does to make themselves feel important. we can help others, but we do need to improve ourselves first. that's what i believe. Reply

Sandra Greene Poplarville, MS/USA April 13, 2008

Thank you Nechoma I loved the article you wrote..sometimes we have to be reminded of what we already know. Thanks Nechoma and be blessed. Reply

Anonymous October 14, 2007

Questionable conclusion After quoting the section about:
<<when a person sees evil in another person, he is really being shown the evil in himself >>,
I find it incongruous that the conclusion is that we help the other person. Seems obvious that we should FIRST look at ourselves to recognize where we have also been wrong. Only when we have done so should we think about helping the other person. Reply

Lori Owyhee, Nevada October 29, 2006

comment Shalom, I like "looking at yourself through others." It put a lot of things in perspective for me... Reply