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

The majority of the portion of Noach talks about the story of the Flood. Before G‑d 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.

The Torah almost always uses the minimum amount of words to say the maximum amount of things

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 Jewish law are deduced by the Talmud from the presence or absence of a single letter!

The foremost commentator 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 Torah portion we are taught 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 Torah portion 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 immodest. (There are laws of modesty and proper decorum for men too.) Noach had three sons, Shem, Cham and Yefet. 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 Grandpa is doing? He’s lying naked in his tent.” He made a big joke and hullabaloo about it.

When Shem and Yefet 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 problem is not what you see; the problem is what you look at

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 saying negative things about other people, and how to avoid seeing negative things in other people.

The Rebbe quotes a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, 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 G‑d 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 refine himself? Why can’t we say that it’s because one has to help that other person refine himself? Perhaps G‑d showed him his negative traits, so he could teach him to mend his ways? Why should one have to berate himself and assume that it is due to his own issues?

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, he or she is 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 G‑d get us to become aware of the deficiencies in ourselves? By letting us see them in another person.

Self-love is the strongest love of all

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 G‑d intends to convey to us: If the first reaction upon seeing this flaw in the other person is, "Look at 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 try to rectify yourself. We see that Shem and Yefet didn’t talk about the problem, they acted — and covered their father’s nakedness.

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 negative, but rather on the rectification of the person for his sake, then it is clear that the reason you saw the negative was so that you could help to rectify him or her.