Pointing Inward, Not Outward
I was walking my daughters to their ballet class, holding each of their hands in mine, grateful for the non-stroller stage of life that allows me to take my girls out of the car and walk with them, rather than shlep around with their bulky strollers. As we made our way towards the building, a mother came towards us pushing her stroller. Suddenly her not-quite-one-year-old pointed at my five and three year old daughters and cried out, “Baby!”
This was very cute. I’m always amused when I see babies calling older children, “babies.” It may never have occurred to the ten month old that she herself was a baby.
It’s not a blemish to be a baby, but this reminds me of the Torah concept “mum shebifnim” – a blemish within. This is a profound idea: when we look at other people, we are more likely to see a blemish that we have within ourselves. For example, physically, if we have an unsightly mark on our chin, we will notice the marks on other people’s chins. We become hypersensitive without realizing that it is our own insecurities which are being magnified.
A more pressing area, though, is negative character traits. If we suffer from stinginess, all that we see in others is their stinginess. According to this Jewish understanding, we must be very careful of what we notice is wrong in another person’s character, because it is often a reflection or projection of our own shortcomings. If we are honest with ourselves, and examine our inner workings, we may often find this to be correct.
Have you ever watched a standup comedian or a powerful speaker? What made you laugh the loudest? What inspired you the most? What genuinely affected you? Often, it is their humanity that we can relate to, everything that makes a person perfectly imperfect. “Yes! I know someone who does exactly that!” But we ourselves could never be that person!
Rather than pointing outward, we need to point inward and reflect: “Wait, am I guilty of this behavior?” This approach can be the inspiration for tremendous personal growth and change. Sometimes another person’s anger or stinginess or insensitivity is aimed directly at us and it hurts. But rather than wallowing in pain over their poor behavior, why not ask, “When have I been guilty of doing the same thing?”
My mother-in-law, a woman who values personal growth and is quite an inspiration to me, always says, “I cannot control anyone else but myself.”
This is so true! But it’s very hard to actually live by because we want to change others; it seems easier than changing ourselves!
Pointing fingers and becoming frustrated with other people does not lead to anything productive. Instead, each time Hashem shows us someone’s shortcomings, even daily, we can think that we need to learn something. Life is like a theater where we can see others acting out roles and situations from which we can learn deep messages.
Examples happen all the time. Suppose we are in the grocery store, and we see the person in line before us staring at their phone as the cashier attempts to ask questions about their order. We see the person in line waving off the cashier, responding with careless answers while they are glued to their phone screen.
This interaction is an obvious moment of one human ignoring another. It doesn’t look good, and we might see this and shake our heads in disapproval. Yet, rather than judging the person in front of us, what if we flipped our perception around? Perhaps this interaction was shown to me for a reason? Maybe seeing this is a reminder of how rude and inconsiderate it is when I do this. Perhaps the message is for us to remember not to treat cashiers, bus drivers, sanitation workers, or anyone as machines. Treat them as the human beings that they are. The phone call or text message can wait.
A powerful example of this is found in the Navi. When King David saw Batsheva, he was drawn by her beauty. Moreover, he knew through prophecy that she was meant to be the mother of his dynasty. Therefore, he called for her, and after they met, he sent Uriah, her husband, to war. David strategically placed Uriah on the front lines so that he would inevitably be killed.
Afterwards, the prophet Nathan was sent by G-d to David to ask a question about an issue that took place among the men of his country. Nathan said, “A rich man stole the sole sheep from a poor man and had it slaughtered for a lavish meal. Meanwhile, the rich man had many sheep of his own. What should be done?” (2 Shmuel 12:1-5)
Kind David angrily responded, “That person deserves death!”
To which Nathan then replied, “You are that rich man.”
In that moment, David realized the severity of his sin and did teshuvah.
This is the important principal the Torah is teaching us: How we judge others is how Hashem will judge us. When we see others doing something we consider inappropriate, do we try to judge them favorably and think what could have caused them to do this? Everything Hashem sends to us is a message. What we see in others is a window into ourselves.
I remember a story about a young boy who came over to play at my friend’s home. This boy was from a religious family that valued Torah learning and davening to the utmost degree. But she overheard him using appalling language. Her initial thoughts were, “This is how a religious child speaks? How can it be?! I wonder if his parents speak this way.” All sorts of judgments were flying through her mind.
Then she stopped herself and thought, “Hashem is giving me this for a reason. What can I learn from it?” She realized that she didn’t always use refined language herself. She wouldn’t want anyone to overhear her when she was in the midst of a vulnerable moment when she was angry or upset! Her own words could use some improvement!
This really shook her up. Judging this boy for how he spoke showed her the dissonance between her own beliefs and her own actions that had to be improved. How could she judge him when she had the same fault?
This concept of mum shebifnim, in essence, works in the opposite way as well. Although we may be oblivious to what we are lacking in spirituality, we are often hypersensitive to what we lack physically.
If we are longing to have a child, all we see are pregnant women. If a man is balding, it seems that everywhere he turns he sees men with full heads of hair. If we live in cramped accommodations, it seems like everyone else has a huge home! Whatever it is we are lacking, we see in other people (both spiritually and physically).
If we allow ourselves to reflect and act from a place of self-awareness and compassion, then every moment in life can be an opportunity for personal growth and deveikus to Hashem, rather than judgment, blame, and disconnection from others.
This awareness of mum shebifnim allows us the opportunity to point inwards, not outwards. Focusing on our inner blessings and practicing compassion for others while looking inward can prevent the negative effects of mum shebifnim. This can enable us to accomplish tremendous personal growth, internalizing within us the opportunity to expand our love for others and for ourselves.