In Tazria, the Torah outlines the process for diagnosing and purifying a person afflicted with the spiritual malady of tzoraat – a disease that is often confused with leprosy but is not the same. The Torah authorises only the Priests to verify whether a person really has tzoraat and to confirm when he is ready to begin the purification process.1 The Mishna points out that if a Priest himself is afflicted with tzoraat he cannot diagnose himself – the language of the Mishna is, “All blemishes a man can see, except for his own.”

The Darchei Mussar2 derives an essential lesson from his halacha. We know that tzoraat comes about as a result of various sins, and the Priest’s involvement in the process is intended to help the person recognize his sin and do teshuva. However, when a person sins himself, it is much harder to objectively recognize his own failings and repent. Thus, the Mishna is alluding to the fact that on a spiritual level, a person can easily see the failings and sins of other peoples, but he is unable to do the same with regard to his own behavior.

The Darchei Mussar cites a verse in Proverbs that expresses a similar point:

“Your eyes can see what is in front of you, and your eyelashes should see what’s facing you.”

He explains that a person very easily sees the minor faults of his fellow, but can barely see a major flaw in himself – The first part of the verse is saying that it is acceptable for a person to see the negative in his friend and rebuke him for it, but the second part of the verse limits this and says that one can only rebuke his fellow for his flaws if the rebuker first looks at himself and sees that he is not effected by the same flaws. Thus, the verse is alluding to the fact that we naturally see failings of others but can totally miss the exact same failings in ourselves – and therefore it is hypocritical for a person to rebuke one’s fellow in an area that he himself is lacking.

What is the reason that a person finds it so difficult to see his own flaws? This can be answered based on Rav Dessler’s discussion of the prohibition for a judge to accept any kind of bribe.3 Rav Dessler explains, in the same vein as the Darchei Mussar, that a person can never see a flaw in himself, and when a person receives a bribe from someone else, the person bribing becomes emotionally attached to him, to the point that he sees that person as somewhat intertwined into his own identity. Once that happens, he will be unable to view the other person objectively.

He demonstrates the extent of this phenomenon in the Gemara4 There was a farmer who worked for Rebbe Yishmael and every Erev Shabbat he would bring a basket of fruits from Rebbe Yishmael’s fields. On one Thursday, the farmer had a din Torah (court case where Rabbis adjudicate according to Torah law) near Rebbe Yishmael’s home, so on the way he left the basket one day earlier. It emerged that Rebbe Yishmael was the judge in this farmer’s din Torah, and he was concerned that his objectivity would be colored by the minor advantage of receiving the basket one day earlier, therefore, he did not accept the fruits. However, he was still concerned that he could not be fully objective simply because the farmer tried to bestow on him this minor benefit, accordingly, he refused to rule on this case. When the court case was taking place, he overheard the arguments and he found himself trying to find lines of reasoning supporting the claims of the farmer. He then realized how, simply for being offered a small benefit which he did not even accept, he was unable to be objective, and how easily a person can be clouded by bribery.

Rav Dessler points out that if this was the case with someone as great as Rebbe Yishmael, then all the more so we are subject to biases that cloud our ability to honestly asses our behavior.

Thus, the fact that people are so bias with regard to ourselves, renders them unable to recognize their own failings. What is the solution to this issue? The Mishna in Pirkei Avot5 tells us; ‘Acquire for yourself a friend’. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that one of the benefits of having a friend is that he can help a person in observing Mitzvot. He writes:

“Even when a friend is no more righteous than him and sometimes, he even acts improperly, nonetheless he does not want a friend to do the same [action], because he has no benefit from it.6

He then brings as a proof to this idea the principle of the Sages: “a person does not sin on behalf of someone else.” This reflects the idea of the Darchei Mussar and Rav Dessler, that a generally observant person usually sins because he is blinded by some kind of desire for pleasure, however with regard to someone else, we presume that he is not blinded in the same way and therefore we do not suspect him of sinning on behalf of others. This idea is applied in a number of places throughout the Gemara.7 Rabbeinu Yonah thus teaches us the importance of acquiring at least one friend who can act as an objective onlooker towards our own actions, and that this friend need not necessarily be on a higher level than ourselves. May we all merit to find a friend who can help us to honestly assess our actions and help us move forward in our relationship with God.

  1. Vayikra, Chapter 13.
  2. Darchei Mussar Al HaTorah, Parshat Tazria, p.153-154.
  3. Michtav M’Eliyahu, Chelek 1, ‘Mabat HaEmet’, p.52-57.
  4. Ketubot, 105a.
  5. Pirkei Avot 1:6.
  6. Rabbeinu Yonah, Pirkei Avot, 1:6.
  7. Bava Metsia, 5b, Kiddushin, 63b, Shevuot, 42b, Arachin, 23a.