The gift of a mirror

A story of Chelm lends a new perspective to self-reflection around the High Holidays.

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The story goes as follows: Late one night in the city of Chelm, Shmuel noticed his friend Avrum, underneath a streetlight, searching for something on the ground.

"What are you doing, Avrum?"

"I've lost my keys. Please help me look for them." 

A while passed with no success.

"Avrum, where exactly did you lose those keys?"

"I lost them in that alley over there."  

Shmuel was dumbfounded. "So why are we looking here!?!" 

Avrum looked over at his friend: "Because the light is better here!"

The story may seem silly at first glance, but it reveals a foundational truth about human self-perception. When it comes to reflecting on our lives and behaviors, we tend to find comfort in the familiar, well-lit areas as opposed to the uncharted depths, where the roots of shortcomings and flaws tend to dwell. 

Of note is that most of us tend to have no problem identifying character flaws in others, but when it comes to our own negative behaviors, we tend to let ourselves off the hook, excusing our actions either by outsourcing blame or under the cover of "self-acceptance." Blinded  to our own character flaws, we choose to throw up our hands and play the "that's just how I am" card. 

The renowned 20th century Chasidic Rebbe Shalom Noach Berezovsky states it this way: "The worst thing is when a Jew feels that 'by him all is right, just how it is'...we get used to our situation and have no aspiration to change, to raise ourselves out of the routine of our lives." 

We convince ourselves that when it comes to the deepest truths of who we are, there are blind spots that we can never possibly identify, let alone eliminate. But to accept this is to deny the fundamental promise of our humanity, no less of the approaching High Holy Days: that the journey to become the best of who we can be is never outside of our sightlines. 

So, how do we overcome the blind spots of our own self-reflection?  Consider blind-spot elimination for automobiles. Beyond the benefits of any advanced blind-spot technology, the Society of Automotive Engineers suggests a tweak in the most fundamental of practices to negate a car's blind spot: the simple adjustment of the side mirrors so far outward that their viewing angle overlaps that of the car's rearview mirror. Put more simply, the best way to prevent blind spots involves taking an entirely different, expansive view. 

The 18th century Rav Yaakov Yosef makes a similar suggestion for eliminating our personal blind spots.  He teaches that when we encounter something unbecoming in the character or actions of another, instead of focusing our judgement tightly towards that person, we should instead widen our view, understanding the encounter to be a Divine gift to us: the gift of a mirror. 

As is so often the case, the negative qualities we can perceive so astutely in others prove reflections of those very same traits in ourselves that we aren't able to otherwise discern in ourselves because they reside in our blind spots. By eliminating these blind spots through this expansive perspective, we will not only experience more empathy towards others, but more importantly, with a full, unobscured view, we can begin the real work of personal growth and teshuvah (repentance). In seeing ourselves as we actually are, we can both envision the best of who we can be and illuminate the path to get there at the same time. 

Rabbi Wendi Geffen is the Senior Rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe.

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