My great-uncle, Reb Mendel Futerfas, of blessed memory, was one of the outstanding heroes who survived Stalin’s Gulags. After many years of forced labor as punishment for his “crime” of helping strengthen Jewish life in the Soviet Union, he was eventually able to leave Russia and reunite with his wife and children, who had escaped Russia years earlier and were living in London. He was later appointed by the Rebbe to serve as head mashpia (spiritual mentor) in the Lubavitcher yeshivah of Kfar Chabad, Israel.

Often he would sit with fellow chassidim and students, and recall his prison experiences and the lessons that he learned from them.

I recently heard my father-in-law, Rabbi Hirsch Chitrik, retell the following anecdote that he heard from Reb Mendel.

One of the activities prohibited in the Gulag was card playing. It was considered a severe crime, and harsh punishment was imposed if one was caught violating this prison rule.

Somehow, the inmates managed to smuggle in a deck of cards, and would while away their free time with the forbidden game.

The guards were told about the breach, and came to inspect the prisoners’ quarters. They found nothing.

Were these uncouth prisoners really outsmarting them? As weeks went by, and the games continued, the guards were baffled. Are these uncouth prisoners really outsmarting us? they wondered.

They finally decided to put an end to this affront to their authority and pride, and carried out a surprise inspection, checking every inch of the barracks as well as the bodies and clothes of the inmates.

They found nothing.

They came to the conclusion that the informer had lied to them, either to curry favor in their eyes or to make a joke out of them.

As soon as the inspectors left, the cards appeared and the games continued as usual.

Reb Mendel couldn’t understand how it had happened: the inspectors had checked every possible hiding place.

Eventually, he was let in on the secret.

“You see,” the head thief began, “we are professional pickpockets. As soon as the guards would enter the barracks, we would slip the cards into their pockets. Right before they would leave, we would slip them back out again. Obviously, it never occurred to the guards to check their own pockets . . .”

The lesson is clear. If you want to make an accurate assessment of reality, start your search by checking your own pockets.

Often, when we make our spiritual and personal inventory, we instinctively look to place blame on those around us. “My parents are responsible,” “my wife is responsible,” “my education is responsible,” etc. Everyone is blamed except oneself. That is an easier and less painful way to do things, but it is not effective in the long run. In order to really put your life into order, you must not overlook your own “pockets.”

Remember:

Every time you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself!