“A man or a woman who sets himself apart by making a nazirite vow to abstain for the sake of G‑d”—Numbers 6:2.

In the book of Numbers (chs. 5–6) we learn of the laws of the sotah (suspected adulteress) and the nazir (one who takes a vow which involves abstention from wine). While outwardly these two subjects share nothing in common, the fact that Scripture places them one after the other indicates an underlying correlation. The sages explained the connection between these two sections as follows: “Why is the section dealing with the suspected adulteress related just before the section dealing with one who takes a nazirite vow? To teach you that whoever observes such a woman in her disgrace should forswear wine.”

Witnessing another’s downfall says as much about the one who sees it as about the one actually going through itOn a simple level, one may interpret this teaching to mean that when one beholds someone who is in a state of spiritual ruin, the observer is reminded of the general frailty of human nature and should thus take precautions to prevent his own moral downfall. However, this interpretation raises a question. If observing someone else’s moral failure serves as a stark reminder of our own weaknesses, then why is there a need to also take on a specific vow? Just seeing another person in a state of disgrace should be a sufficiently forceful reminder that the observer must be watchful of his own conduct as well.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explained that one never “just happens” to observe something. Witnessing another person’s downfall says as much about the one who sees it as about the one actually going through it. Despite whatever wrong the other person may have done, the very fact that the observer is so keenly aware of the other’s sinful behavior is an indication of his own glaring defect—a readiness to see impropriety in his fellow. Thus, say the sages, the person who takes notice of the grave failings of others should forswear the drinking of wine. It was not by chance that he set eyes on his fellow in an unseemly position, but rather because of his own predisposition toward spotting such things.

It seems that the sages knew quite a bit about us alcoholics. Who has been as ready to find fault in others as we have been? Who has been as indignant toward the shortcomings of others? Recovery has taught us that whenever we see bad in someone else, our reaction must not be the self-righteous anger to which we had once felt entitled, but to assess our own spiritual condition.

There was a time when seeing how others were doing wrong made us feel more holy. In sobriety, we work toward the day when—in true holiness—we will see only goodness in all of our fellows.