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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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Seeing the potential in others

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Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz

One of the most complex and arcane sections of the Torah deals with a skin disease called nega tzara’at, usually mis-translated as leprosy. Regarding the legal requirement that the diagnosis of this condition must be made by the priest, the Talmud states, “Every nega one may see, except his own.” In our inspirational literature, this teaching is often cited in a figurative way: all faults one may see, except his own. This, of course, points to the fact that we see the shortcomings of others with great clarity, but of our own we are oblivious.

We may suggest that this isn’t simply a play on words. The metaphoric interpretation is actually the underlying rationale for the legal ruling. For nega tzara’at was never understood to be a simple physical ailment. It was always taken as Divine sign of a sinful act or negative personality trait. If a person was to examine his own nega tzara’at, he undoubtedly would give himself a favourable diagnosis, as an unfavourable one would point to a flaw that he cannot bring himself to see.

To expand on this idea, we may observe that we often have a difficult time seeing ourselves even in a positive light. Why would this be? Certainly we have no problem noting our achievements and successes. Yet, we may have a problem noting our potentialities, especially when they have not been actualized. There’s no greater flaw than unrealized potential. By denying this potential, we spare ourselves the pain of facing the fact that we squander it to our own detriment.

To overcome this blind spot, we may need the encouragement of others. Pirkei Avot relates that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, leader of the Jewish community in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple, would cite the praises of each of his main disciples. (For example, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus was praised as a “plastered cistern that does not lose a drop,” a reference to his fantastic memory.) We should assume that this was not simple flattery. Rather, by pointing out their unique strengths, he was forcing them to face the reality of their own potential and rise to the challenge.

Conversely, we find that 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva died for the failure to honour one another. (Mourning this loss is the basis for special observances during the Omer period.) The question has been asked: we know that one of the great teachings of Rabbi Akiva is that the mitzvah to love a fellow Jew is the most fundamental rule of the Torah. Undoubtedly, his disciples absorbed this teaching. If so, how is it possible that they mistreated one another?

The answer is that they did not mistreat one another. The certainly loved each other and would have given the shirt off their backs to friends in need. But they didn’t honour one another. That is, they failed to acknowledge the unique characteristics of one another.

Their sin was the failure to enable their colleagues to realize their own potential to the fullest by giving them the needed encouragement. For men who were destined to be future teachers of the Jewish people, this was a fatal flaw.

Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz is rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah.

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