A well-respected Torah teacher encountered a terrible situation while traveling: a Jewish woman held captive by ruthless men. Fueled by the Torah’s command to redeem captives, he pooled his resources and did whatever he could to secure her release.

The bandits handed him the woman and left. He brought her to his home and she stayed with him overnight. The following morning, in plain view, all his students saw their pious teacher immersing in the mikvah, as is the custom for a man who has a seminal emission at night.

You see where this is going?

This is actually a story in the Talmud.1 The Talmud tells us that the teacher asked his students, “What did you think happened last night?”

They responded, “We figured that you wanted to protect the woman from unruly characters who might assault her. As for the mikvah bit, we assumed that the fatigue of travel caused a seminal emission.”

The teacher was exuberant, and proclaimed, “I swear, that is indeed what happened!” He thereby blessed his students that just as they judged him favorably, so should G‑d judge them favorably as well.

Why am I telling you this story?

Because it contains the answer to a pressing question you might have (or at least should have), namely, how do you break free from your own negative qualities? Let’s face it, we all have stuff inside we want to be rid of, or at least improve, and it can be a lifelong struggle to get there. So if you’re trying to be kinder, more generous, or even more devout, and everything you’ve tried so far hasn’t helped, what are you supposed to do?

The story above holds the answer.

A Thick Darkness

Before I explain how, let’s take a look at how the Torah describes the type of darkness experienced by the Egyptians during the ninth plague: “They did not see each other, and no one rose from their place for three days.”2

What exactly does it mean that “no one rose from their place?” Were the Egyptians literally frozen in place, the first and last time a whole nation was actually “glued to their seats?”

For many commentators,3 the answer is a definite yes! This was not any ordinary darkness. This was pandemic-level darkness, a miraculous feat G‑d pulled off to shroud Egypt in such a thick blanket of gloom, it froze them in their places.

Others4 understand it a bit more loosely, explaining that the darkness was so frightening and disorienting, people ended up quarantining at home, not “rising from their place” to venture outside while the terrifying darkness shrouded the world.

But I want to offer you a Chassidic interpretation that sheds light (pun intended!) on how to be a better person.

Seeing Another

The first nuance to look at is the Hebrew word mitachtav, which we previously translated as “from his place.” While that is a fine translation, a more literal reading would be, “from underneath it.” Understood simply, this is a reference to the physical space a person occupies, hence the conventional translation. But what’s the deeper significance of this anomalous phraseology?

The Chassidic masters5 interpreted the entire verse as a reference to how we ought to relate to others and, in turn, what that does to us.

“They did not see each other.” This is a person who does not “see” his or her fellow—not that he or she is blind, obviously, but that he or she is oblivious, or worse yet, too wrapped up in him or herself to be able to see, let alone hear, another person’s point of view.

It happens to the best of us. You’re in the store minding your own business, and down the aisle a parent is struggling. His eight-year-old is bickering with the toddler about which type of candy they should strong-arm dad into buying, and dad is quickly losing his patience. He loses his cool at the kids, and all of a sudden there’s a full-blown tantrum going on in the produce section.

“Tsk, tsk,” you think to yourself, wondering why he can’t keep it together and respond calmly.

You’re in synagogue, trying to collect your thoughts and devote some attention to G‑d. Sitting next to you is the Kiddush King, enthusiastically expressing his thoughts about the elections. You roll your eyes and try not to lash out, frustrated that your Herculean efforts to bring a little spirituality into your life are being thwarted by silly chatter.

You’re not “seeing each other.” At that point, you’re seeing yourself, and yourself only.

And you know what happens when you lose that sight? Well, it’s right there in the next words of the verse (as per our literal reading)—“No one rose from underneath.” You get quashed under your own deficiencies. If you’re throwing shade at people around you (even in your own head), you won’t spot their positive qualities, and the one who ultimately suffers will be you.

If you can’t see the redeeming quality of the Kiddush King talking in shul, your prayer efforts will continue to be frustrating, and the discord and negativity you’ve introduced into the world will eat away at what you’re trying to accomplish. If you figure that he’s an excellent person, his efforts to set the lox so deftly on the platter are his way to connect with G‑d, and his gossip is just part of his overall likeable chatter, well, that will make you more likeable, and it will make you more prone to connect with G‑d.

If you’re empathetic to the harried dad in the supermarket and understand he’s doing his best, he’s overall a great father, and he’s simply overwhelmed, that will make you more kind. It will make you a better parent when you arrive home that night.

When you’re able to “see” another person and revel in the positivity and unity it brings, it will automatically make you better, as well.

From a more spiritual perspective, holiness is defined by unity. Anything that flows from G‑d is at its core singular and united. By contrast, division, fragmentation, and discord are inherently un-G‑dly. So if you’re busy judging everyone and blinding yourself to their good qualities, you’re playing on the wrong team, and you will be “stuck in place” with nary a chance to improve.

If, however, you open your eyes and really “see” the other person, and the positive, holy traits they possess, you’ve signed up for the right team. The holy, G‑dly team. And with such teammates, you’ll only improve.6

Be like the students who only saw their teacher for the righteous man he was. When you do, you’ll be the recipient of the blessing he gave them, “Just as you judged me favorably, so may G‑d judge you favorably.”