By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
The psychological insights of our great Torah scholars are often amazing. This should, in fact, not really surprise us, because the Talmud says of the Torah: “Review it and review it, for everything is in it” (Ethics of the Fathers 5:27). It should therefore not amaze us to find that people well-versed in Torah had a profound understanding of human nature and behavior without having received any formal psychological training.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the world is a mirror, and that the defects we see in other people are only a reflection of our own defects. We are likely to be oblivious to our own defects, but can easily detect shortcomings in other people. The Baal Shem Tov instructs us to take such observations as indications that we have these shortcomings ourselves.
Once, the Baal Shem Tov saw someone doing something forbidden on Shabbos, and he promptly concluded that he himself must have been guilty of a Shabbos violation. When a thorough soul-searching failed to reveal such a violation, he prayed for Divine help in discovering it, and it was revealed to him that he had once heard a Torah scholar being insulted and had failed to defend his honor. Inasmuch as the Zohar states that a Torah scholar has the sanctity of Shabbos, his dereliction was considered equivalent to a violation of Shabbos.
We may assume that we are being given “signals” to call attention to defects of which we may be unaware, but there is also a psychological explanation. Many decades after the Baal Shem Tov, psychologists formulated the conception of “projection”; i.e., we are likely to project our own faults onto someone else.
One may ask, how can this be so? If someone in my presence happens to be doing something wrong, why is my awareness of it an indication of some defect in myself? If I happen to see someone driving his car on Shabbos, why is that an indication of a misdeed on my part? A simple experiment will answer this. Take a group of people to a busy street corner, and after a few moments, ask them to report what they saw. All their observations are likely to differ from one another, because among the multitude of stimuli, each person’s attention was drawn to whatever interested him most. In other words, there is usually a reason why we have observed something. How often have you been told of something that occurred in your presence and you said, “I didn’t even notice it.”
The Baal Shem Tov is simply giving us the most common reason why we may see faults in others. It is a defensive maneuver to minimize the awareness of our own faults, and the self-recrimination that would result from such awareness.
Most people are quick to criticize others for their faults. How wonderful the world would be if we followed the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, and did as he did; namely, when noticing a fault in others, direct our attention inwardly to discover where we can make changes that would lead to self-improvement.
Is the world ready for such a drastic change? Maybe not. But we would all be well-advised to strive for this awareness in the personal world we call ourselves.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, the founder and Medical Director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, is one of the country’s leading experts on alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He is the author of numerous books and a regular contributor to Jewish Action.