When your fellow is but a mirror of yourself, and when he’s actually a window…
And Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness—Genesis 9:20-24.
What’s puzzling about this narrative is the seeming redundancy in its last verse: “Their faces were turned backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.” Isn’t it obvious that – unless possessing eyes in the back of their heads – if “their faces were turned backward,” “they saw not their father’s nakedness”?
Taking into account the Torah’s calculated use of words, we can only conclude that the apparent surplus of words is not, in fact, excessive, but is rather indicating something.
The holy Baal Shem Tov taught: “When you see ill in your friend, it is your own ill that you are observing.” Like a mirror that reflects nothing but what you place before it, so too what you see in your fellow reflects nothing but what you yourself possess.
In different words: People tend to project their own issues, shortcomings, deficiencies, and insecurities onto others, seeing in them exactly what they should rightfully be seeing, and working on, in themselves.
Is it always the case that when you see a flaw in someone else it is actually your own flaw you are seeing? Must that always be so?
The basis for this idea is quite simple.
The principle of Divine Providence dictates that not only is one’s every encounter orchestrated by G‑d, but that every encounter must benefit the one who experiences it. For if there was nothing in it for him, why would G‑d show it to him?
So, everything you come across – whatever, wherever, whenever, however, and in whomever – is all part of an ongoing conversation between G‑d and you. Your questions can be answered, and difficulties resolved, simply by walking down the street, sitting in the subway, or strolling in the park.
That is, so long as you are listening.
It stands to say, then, that if you were brought by Heaven to spot a fault in someone else, surely it is G‑d’s gentle way of telling you that it’s time for you to look inward.
But why say it indirectly, through the revelation of someone else’s faults? Why not just speak to you directly?
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work too well, since we humans are naturally not good at accepting criticism. If we didn’t see it in someone else, we could never see it in ourselves.
Before entering the Baal Shem Tov’s “mirror principle” into my theological data base, one final challenge is left to be dealt with.
The principle’s underlying premise is Divine providence. If it weren’t relevant to me, G‑d wouldn’t cause me to see it. But couldn’t my seeing the lack in my friend simply be so that I can help him right his wrongs? Maybe that is why G‑d brought me to see his failing.
To be honest, the thought is comforting; not all of the bad which I see in others necessarily exists in me…
But that cannot be the case. For if, as I have suggested, at times the negativity I am shown in others is strictly so that I can set them straight, I wouldn’t be seeing negative in them; I would see only the need to fix.
I wouldn’t hear voices of judgment in my mind, but only a call for action.
Mirror or Window
Imagine you saw someone walk right past a sign that says in bold letters: Danger – Don’t Pass Beyond This Point. To the horror of everyone watching, the fellow loses his balance on some loose rocks, and begins to fall down a steep slope.
In those critical moments, when something might still be done to save him, would you busy yourself with thoughts of how big an idiot the guy must be?
Didn’t he see the sign? Did he think he was smarter than the experts who put it up? Does he think he’s superman?…
Or would you spring to action in the hope of saving a life?
These different reactions and attitudes accurately indicate whether or not what you see in others is a reflection of yourself.
If you find yourself judging, it is you who deserves to be judged. If you see your fellow as a defendant on trial, it is you who is being tried. Your friend is no more than a mirror—providing you with an objective view of yourself. In fact, he is deserving of your gratitude, for without him you would remain unacquainted with parts of yourself.
If, however, you saw this individual as a casualty in need, as someone you can help, you are looking at a window, not a mirror; a window of opportunity, transparent like glass.
And Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.
There was no question that Noah messed up.
There was also no question that Noah needed help.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.
Ham chose to judge… and to report.
He didn’t choose to act.
To him, Noah served as a crystal clear mirror.
And Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and covered their father’s nakedness.
Shem and Japheth chose to act.
Their faces were turned backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
They didn’t judge. They didn’t see – i.e., contemplate – the fact that their father was naked.
To them Noah was a window.