In Parshat Naso, we are taught the laws of the Sotah, a woman charged with cheating on her husband, and the laws of the Nazir, a man who voluntarily separates himself from wine. Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of the two and says that the Torah is teaching us that those who are exposed to a woman undergoing the Sotah process must separate themselves from wine. This is because when we see someone acting inappropriately, God is also sending us a message to pay extra attention to our own attitudes and uproot any potential behavior that could bring us to a similar situation.
This idea of using the demise of someone else as impetus to look inwards is certainly a sharp piercing message. Our Sages challenge us to never view ourselves as an outsider. Everyone we meet is a teacher in some way, and every situation is an opportunity to learn. To quote Helen Keller “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.”
With this in mind, we have a new appreciation for the words of our sages “Who is wise? One who learn from all people.” Our sages are not only referring to people that we look up to or are impressed with, but even people who we look down at, people we really don’t like being around, those who do the little things that get under our skin, acts that we frown upon, and display character traits we view as negative. Those people, too, can be our greatest teachers, if we take to heart what message we are supposed to be taking way from them. This is true with a boss, coworker, spouse, even a child who is acting disrespectfully.
This is especially true since very often we notice things in others that really exist inside of ourselves. We tend to love and hate things in other people according to what we love and hate about ourselves. A character trait that we ourselves don’t possess won’t affect us when we see it in someone else. Therefore when we see a flaw in someone else and it bothers us, e.g. “he’s so irresponsible”, “she’s so into herself”, we must ask the question, is there something that is really bothering me about myself that I am just projecting onto this person?
Additionally, the Almighty in his infinite perfection designed the world in a way that a person’s surroundings are tailor made to convey the lessons that one has to learn. When we see something that bothers us, He is sending us a personal message. When someone gives us a criticism and our knee-jerk reaction is to blow it off as illegitimate, we have to realize that for some reason or another, the Almighty wanted us to hear these words.
There is a story about a righteous man who once saw a child acting wildly in the street. He pulled the child aside and sharply scolded him, “go back to your Cheder (day school)”. The brazen child looked the righteous man square in the eye and with full blown Chutzpah responded, “Maybe YOU should go back to Cheder!” The righteous man took this as a message that he was neglecting certain areas of study and that he had to designate additional time for them.
Life is a constant learning experience. But it is our job to never let a lesson slip away, but rather to take every opportunity to ask ourselves “What is the Almighty trying to tell me?”