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As Other See Us

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

One of the latest mixed blessings of technology is the video resume and job application. Doing away with the paper resume may save on the world’s trees, but the wear-and-tear on the soul is another matter. Anyone who has ever made a video tape of himself knows the shock of seeing and hearing oneself as others do. The revelation of one’s own voice unmodified by the vibrations of the skull, and of the technically reproduced gestures, tics and various physical eccentricities that flesh is heir to and oblivious to, constitute an an out-of-body experience that not everyone wishes to have. We do not see or hear ourselves as others do; and don’t want to, either.

The Jewish sages made note of the phenomenon in their comment on the verse (Leviticus 13:3), “And the kohen shall see the affliction” (which refers to a skin discoloration which existed in Temple times due to slander and other wrongdoing). The afflicted cannot perform a self-examination and determine for himself if he has the malady known as a nega and must undergo a purifying process of quarantine. Even if he knows the laws and is expert in diagnosing the symptoms, he must present himself to the kohen for his decision. The Torah itself gives no explanation, but the sages draw a moral lesson: “A person sees the afflictions of all, except his own” (Mishna Negaim 2:5). We are all experts in what is wrong with the other guy, though we tend to be oblivious to our own faults.

One day, as I was getting dressed, I noticed that my kippah (yarmulka) was drastically faded. I was surprised to see that the cuddly black velveteen I had purchased not so many months ago, had lost its youthful sheen and was now closer to gray than black. Since it is usually perched on top of my head, beyond my peripheral vision, I hadn’t noticed the change in color. Perhaps nobody else had either, other than tall neighbors and the One above, about whose existence it is intended to remind me. My self-image as that fellow with the crisp black kippa was restored only by a timely purchase of a new one.

It is possible to go through life without ever perceiving ourselves at all as others see us. There are aspects of our personality, of our deeds, which are beyond our field of self-perception (or deception). This is what friends are for; to correct our distorted self-image, to point out the faded, worn-out ideas we have about ourselves.

Years ago, friends of mine were hosting their newly married daughter and son-in-law in their home. The son-in-law was slam dunk height, dwarfing his hosts, who are rather short in any case. At one point during the visit, the new son-in-law happened to be standing next to a cabinet by the wall. As he was talking, he glanced over and noticed a layer of dust on top of the cabinet, and dragged some off with a finger. Looking up, his mother-in-law saw this, and was horrified. Even though she’s a assiduous housekeeper, and the rest of the house was spotlessly clean; she simply never thought to dust up there because it was so high that she never even saw it. From her tall son-in-law’s vantage point, however, the dust was clearly visible.

Sometimes, though, even those closest to us just aren’t “tall” enough to see what it is about us that’s in need of maintenance. Or they fail to recognize our faults when they do see them. Or they are afraid to incur our displeasure by pointing them out.

Indeed, it is not always appropriate to inform someone of his or her faults. You have to be careful. Not everybody appreciates a full-force slum dunk right into their carefully-cultivated self-image, no matter how erroneous. The story is told of how the students of Rav Yisrael Salanter once called their rebbe’s attention to the pretense of a certain individual who fancied himself a tsadik nistar (one of the 36 hidden righteous upon whom the survival of the world depends), but was in reality nothing of the kind. Rav Yisrael cautioned them not to say anything to the man that might burst his bubble. He explained that this person’s whole Jewish identity depended on his self-image as a tsadik nistar. To take that away from him would mean taking everything away from him.

Not only job applicants, but ceo’s, politicians and other video “stars” are coached in eliminating the inelegant umm’s and ahh’s between words, and are told what to do with their hands. The slickest image wins. For some of us, though, there’s a deeper lesson.

Reprinted with permission from



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