Shelach: The Behavior Mirror
The mirror can be brutally honest. It reveals our beauty and our ugliness. It is not a good idea to stare in the mirror all day, but every so often it is good to take an honest look in the mirror.
When the Jewish people were in the desert, they found a Jewish man gathering wood; a labor that is forbidden on Shabbat. The Torah relates, “They presented him, those who found him gathering wood, before Moses and Aaron and before the entire congregation.”
When we read this passage, we are immediately struck by its bulky syntax. It could have read, “those who found him gathering wood, presented him before Moses.” That is more streamlined than, “They presented him, those who found him gathering wood, before Moses.”
Rashi explains that this seemingly repetitive language teaches us that the man continued gathering wood even after he was found and even after he was warned that it is a forbidden and punishable act on Shabbat—the day of rest. This compounds the severity and audacity of the sin.
While Rashi offers a literary explanation, we seek a deeper layer that holds a moral lesson for all time. And we find it in the teachings of Chassidic philosophy.
Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov taught that what we see in others is a mirror of our own behavior. If we see another behaving inappropriately, we must ask ourselves why G-d brought this shameful tidbit to our attention. Does G-d want us to know something inappropriate about His children? No, G-d did not bring it to our attention for us to share a salacious morsel of gossip. It was for us to take an honest look at the mirror it presents. To look within and to learn a lesson.
The Jews who saw the person collecting wood realized that they too were guilty. If they saw another’s shame, it must have been for the purpose of shining a light on their own shortcomings. When the Torah writes, “those who found him gathering wood,” it can be understood in two ways. Either they found him gathering word or those who found him (were also) gathering wood. Both interpretations are correct. They found him gathering wood and thus realized that they too were guilty of a similar sin.
The Parallel Sin
To underscore this teaching, the Baal Shem Tov shared a personal anecdote. One day, he observed a Jew desecrating Shabbat. He examined his conscience and could not recall a time when he had desecrated Shabbat. He felt terrible because he knew he must have done something for otherwise he would not have been privy to the sin he had observed in another. Yet, if he were unable to recall it, he would be unable to repent for it.
In his misery, he prayed for enlightenment, and it came to him. On one occasion he had heard gossip spoken about a Torah scholar and he did not object. The Zohar teaches that what Shabbat is to the week, Torah scholars are to the nation. He thus surmised that the sin he was seeing in the mirror of the other’s behavior was not precisely about Shabbat, but similar. He quickly learned his lesson and repented.
The story demonstrates that when we see another doing something shameful and we are certain we never said or did something similar, we are still not off the hook. We need to self-examine carefully and creatively until we recall a parallel or at least a similar sin. If instead, we run around criticizing the person who sinned, we become guilty of two sins. A, we gossip. B, we fail to repent for the sin that G-d was hoping to bring to our attention. Even more shameful, we advertise to the world that we are guilty of something and are too self-absorbed to seek it.
I will conclude with an interesting story. Rabbi DovBer Schneuri, the second Rebbe of Chabad was once vacationing in Belarus near Smorgon. His followers flocked to his inn, each asking to be received for a personal audience. The Rebbe consented.
At one point, the Rebbe closed his door and stopped the line. The Chassidim thought the Rebbe was taking a break, but word soon arrived that the Rebbe was immersed in deep heartfelt prayer and was heard crying behind closed doors. Chassidim did not understand the Rebbe’s sudden shift in mood, but they followed suit. Before long, everyone was praying and self-examining.
The Rebbe emerged for the afternoon service which was conducted in a spirit of solemnity reminiscent of the ten days of penitence. The Rebbe then presented a long discourse on the nature of hidden sins. Sometimes, he explained, our faults are so well hidden that we are not even aware of them.
The next day, the Rebbe felt so weak that he was forced to rest for a while before reopening his doors to the throngs that awaited him.
One of the elderly Chassidim asked the Rebbe about his sudden shift in demeanor and the Rebbe explained: Ordinarily, when a Chassid asks me to guide him on the path to repentance, I check my mirror to seek a parallel sin, albeit in refined form, in my own heart. After I repent for my sin, I am able to guide the Chassid’s repentance.
(A story is told of a woman who asked a mentor for advice on how to stop curb her habit of eating salt excessively. The mentor invited her to return in a week. When she returned, he gave her advice. When she asked, why he did not help her the first time, he explained that he first had to stop eating excessive salt, and only then was he able to help her stop.)
Yesterday, someone asked me to help him repent for such a heinous sin that I could not find a parallel within myself. I could not help him until I found it, so I had to stop the line to seek more carefully. When I was unable to find the sin, I concluded that it was a form of hidden evil that masquerades as righteous. Such sins are exceedingly difficult to identify, and they can linger for a long time. This prompted my intense spirit of somber repentance.
If the Rebbe sought within himself a parallel of every sin that was brought to his attention, how much more so should we. Rather than criticizing and degrading those whose sins have come to our attention, let’s focus on ourselves lest we become deserving of similar criticism.