“The world doesn’t revolve around you.”
“Believe it or not, you’re not the center of the universe.”
We’ve all heard these lines. We’ve (hopefully) all spent the time between babyhood and the present learning to accept them.
But in the process, we’ve lost something. Because in a certain sense, they’re false.
The world really does revolve around us. You.
Because everything in our lives, everything around us, everything we read, every interaction we have, everything we hear – Hashem has placed it all in the world so that we can utilize it to develop ourselves.
Take Torah. We aren’t told to learn Torah simply to become intellectually smarter. Torah wants one thing from us – that we change. That we develop ourselves.
We change when we take things personally. So Torah asks us to take what we learn and direct it inwards. Nothing we learn is objective. It’s not talking about “them” or “others.” It’s all there for us to internalize – and grow from.
After the Torah talks about the concept of “Nazir” (a person who abstains from wine and grape products), it launches immediately into the topic of “Sotah” (an unfaithful wife who dies for her sin). On that juxtaposition, Chazal remark that any man who sees a Sotah’s demise should take on the strictures of the Nazir.
Why? He’s an innocent bystander. Why does he need to take what he has seen so seriously?
A similar instance – the story of Miriam’s punishment for speaking lashon hora about Moshe Rabbeinu is juxtaposed to the story of the Spies. Chazal again highlight the connection – the Spies saw what Miriam had to suffer through because of lashon hora, yet still decided to slander the Land of Israel.
Why did the story of Miriam make the Spies’ sin worse?
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the world around us is our mirror. It’s a vehicle to show us who we are and what we need to change about ourselves.
Which answers the questions we asked about the witnesses of a Sotah and the ten Spies. If they had been exposed to such events, they were supposed to internalize them. To take them as a message that somewhere inside, they were struggling with the same issues. And to act upon that awareness.
Usually, when we see someone doing something that offends us, we jump into pointing out their faults. And even if we don’t, we spend a second or two enjoying the fact that we’re not like them.
Even further – what about when someone directly criticizes us? And what if they’re not a loving mentor or friend, but a hater, a disdainer, an enemy?
Those seemingly senseless criticisms serve the same purpose.
In Tehillim 92, Dovid Hamelech shares: “Kamu alai merei’im, tishmana aznoi – When enemies rise against me, my ears listen.” The Alter of Kelm draws from this verse that we would all do well to listen closely to what our enemies have to say about us. They see us from an angle we don’t often look at ourselves. And while, for the most part, they may be terribly wrong about us, they still might be highlighting legitimate issues we need to work on.
Having said all this, let’s pause for a moment.
Many, many people would react to these ideas with pain, outrage, fear. What do you mean, everything I see and hear is a criticism about me? What do you mean, I should believe and internalize what my enemies say about me? That’s a recipe for total depression and misery!
Yes, that’s true – for those who haven’t been learning with us for the last two months. For those who view their value conditionally. Who are afraid of seeing flaws in their self-image. Who assume that life is about accomplishing, about reaching results, and that a lack of positive results says something negative about them.
We, however, have been blessed to shift our perspective. We’ve learned that life isn’t about racking up results, but about “becoming.” It’s solely and completely about going through the journey and doing the work.
We’ve learned to accept and embrace ourselves no matter how scuffed (or how sparkling) our inner homes look. We’ve learned that it’s okay to be who we are, that everything inside us has a purpose, and that all we need to worry about is moving forward.
Someone with a fragile self-image, constantly trying to save themselves from hurt, couldn’t handle living life through the lens of “what’s this teaching me about myself?”
But with our new perspective, we’re ready to see our every experience and interaction as a gift to be mined. We’re ready to convert the negative energy around us into fuel for positive self-growth.
And to enjoy the incredible, exciting life of growth, positivity, and exploration such an attitude opens up for us.
Rabbi Levi Lebovits is the Director of the Vaad Project, Yeshiva Toras Chaim of Denver.