Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

What do I do about the toxic people in my life?

Noach

Many rear-view mirrors remind us that: “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”

What does this have to do with anxiety and depression?

In this week’s Bible reading, Noach, [1] we read about the flood that destroyed all life on earth. Only Noah, his family and the animal specimens that entered his ark before the flood began survived.

After the end of the flood, Noah left the ark, faced with the stark reality that it was up to him and his family to restore life on earth. He planted a vine and got drunk. When his son Cham saw his father naked in his tent, he went out to tell his brothers. The Torah [2] describes how the two brothers Shem and Yafet “took a garment and placed it on their shoulders. They walked backwards and covered their father’s nakedness, while facing away from him, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

It is evident from the description that they were walking backwards and had their faces turned that they did not to see their father in the compromising condition he was in while they covered him. Why is it necessary for the Torah to emphasize this detail explicitly, saying that “they did not see their father’s nakedness”?

We have a great insight into human nature here.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, taught that nothing happens by chance; everything happens by Divine Providence. It follows that from everything one sees and hears one must learn something, because if the event did not contain a relevant message, why would G-d make him or her come to know about it?

The logical conclusion is that when one sees a fault in another, it is not in vain but for one’s benefit. What is the benefit in seeing a fault in someone else? The Baal Shem Tov explains that when one sees a fault in another, it is as if one is looking at a mirror. If the face you see in the mirror is dirty, it’s because yours is. Since it is difficult for one to realize a fault in one’s own character or behavior, it is shown to him in another and when one sees it – much more easily – in their fellow, they are in a better position to reflect on themselves to see if they do not suffer from the same fault.

One might, however, challenge this by asking: granted that seeing a fault in someone else is not by chance, but purposeful. How do I know that it is so that I realize that I am suffering from the same fault myself? Can it not be that it is because I am in a position to help them?

The answer is that it depends on what you see. Do you see a good person who has a problem or do you see an inferior person? If you judge the person and focus on their fault, chances are that you have the fault yourself. You are merely seeing a dirty reflection of your own face. If, however, you don’t concentrate on the problem but the solution, chances are the problem was brought to your attention because you are in a position to do something about it, and not because you have that fault yourself.

Taking this lesson into account is a tool that allows us to see “toxic” people in our lives in a more challenging rather than threatening way. It helps us to evaluate how much of the toxicity in life really comes from others and how much is a mere reflection of our own shortcomings. The objective here is not shift blame and accuse, but the contrary. This perspective is very empowering. If the root of the problem comes from you, that’s where the solution lies, and you can do something about it rather than just complain like a helpless, hopeless victim.

1. Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
2. Ibid, 9:23

Based on Likutei Sichot Vol. 10, pp. 24-29.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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