The Kohen has the first and last word in regard to negaim, plagues. Toras Kohanim states that it is a gezeiras haKasuv, Biblical edict, that the rendering of tumah and taharah, impurity or purity, is solely in the hands of the Kohanim. Sforno adds that the Kohanim are the ones who teach and guide the people in the spiritual dimension. Interfacing with them all will encourage the metzora, afflicted sinner, to repent and mend his ways.
While the Kohen is the decisor concerning negaim, Chazal say that “one can see/inspect all negaim, except his own.” Even a simple, clean-cut plague cannot be decided by the Kohen – if it is his own plague. This teaches us that the closer one is to an object/subject, the less objectivity he has. The ability to see clearly becomes greatly impeded. A judge may not accept shochad, a bribe, because bribery blinds the judge’s ability to see. In the Talmud Kesubos 105b, Chazal say that the word shochad is made up of the words shehu chad, “he becomes one”. The judge who accepts a bribe becomes “one” with the litigant, obscuring his objectivity.
The Baal Shem Tov takes an alternative approach to Chazal’s objection to one viewing and rendering judgment on his own plagues. He explains it homiletically. All plagues that a person sees chutz, in someone else, are a reflection of nigei atzmo, his own shortcomings. He goes as far as to say that one who is free of any failing will not be able to see anything wrong in another person.
Horav Moshe Reis, Shlita, relates that when the saintly Belzer Rebbe, z.l., moved to Tel Aviv, whenever he saw a car moving on Shabbos, he would assume that it was a woman on the way to the hospital to deliver a baby or it was a medical emergency in transit. He could not fathom that chilul Shabbos, desecration of the Holy Day, was occurring. He always felt that anyone who drove on Shabbos only did so for a serious medical emergency.
The Baal Shem Tov writes that if one sees bad in another person, it is like looking at a mirror – he sees a part of himself. Consequently, he feels that one should relate to another person’s failing as he would to his own. Just as he finds a way to gloss over his own shortcomings, so, too, should he be able to seek justification for his fellow’s inappropriate behavior.
The Rambam in Hilchos Isurei Biah 19:17, writes that “all Jewish families are b’chezkas kashrus, in a state of purity, and one may marry into any family. If, however, a member of the family has a brazen personality, contends with everyone and does not get along with people in general, it is sufficient reason to distance oneself from that family. Furthermore, if a member of the family is always finding fault in others, questioning people’s pedigree and calling them mamzeirim, illegitimate – we may suspect that he himself is of illegitimate descent.”
The bottom line is that he who is always finding fault in others probably has a defective character himself. It is this deficiency that is provoking his malignant perspective of people.
Considering the above idea, we are better able to understand a number of Chazal’s maxims. In the Talmud Sotah 2a, Chazal say, “One who sees a sotah, wayward wife, b’kilkulah, in her degradation, should prohibit wine to himself by becoming a nazir.” While it is certainly important that one takes the sotah’s degradation to heart, why should he become a nazir? He has not sinned. He just happened to be walking by when she was being publicly shamed. Is that sufficient reason for him to become a nazir? Whatever happened to the concept of “innocent bystander”?
Rav Reis explains that had there not been a serious dormant deficiency within the psyche of the innocent bystander, he would not have seen the sotah. The fact that he saw, that he was privy to her degradation, transforms him into a “not so” innocent bystander. Hashem is conveying a message to him – one which he should immediately act upon.
The Toldos Yaakov Yosef applies this idea to Chazal’s dictum in Pirkei Avos 4:1, “Who is a wise man? He who learns from all men.” The phrase “all men” means all men, regardless of their background and level of observance and virtue. If one notices a failing in his friend, he should take it as a message that a trace of this shortcoming is also a part of himself. Regrettably, too many of us are so obsessed with looking at our friends’ failings that we disregard the message this deficit is communicating to us.