Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - The Reflection We See
A Simple Jew asks:
People who have problems with each other often share a similar temperament or common aspect of their personalities. While these people may not recognize it, it is usually apparent to others who witness their interactions. It is taught, however, that these people are simply recognizing a negative character trait in the other person that they too possess. Do you think this is always the case? Also, can you think of any examples from your life in which you realized that another person that you had problems with was merely reflecting an aspect of your personality that you were less than proud of?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
Way back when I was a bochur in yeshiva, I noticed a strange thing about my ability to rationalize: The human mind is capable of rationalizing incredible things (even really bad things) but deep down we generally know what's right and wrong – the question is only how often we really analyze our behavior. But, being that we don't like to analyze our actions, we generally avoid it – however, we're constantly faced with opportunities to judge the behavior of others, and we say things like, "Wow, what so-and-so did was wrong," or "What a nice thing to do," etc. As a bochur I noticed (and I still do) that I would have a far easier time finding a limud zchus for actions that I would never consider doing than I was at finding rationales for things that I could see myself doing. I found this odd; after all, if I could imagine myself doing something like that, shouldn't it be easier to rationalize for others?
Later, I realized that it was my conscience judging me when I saw something that I had done, or could see myself doing, in someone else. When that little voice had an opportunity to speak up in a more objective setting it would get in the way and say, "no, you know this is wrong," while if it was something that I wouldn't think of doing, my conscience wouldn't get involved and it was easier to rationalize for someone else.
This I think is the key to the issue you're raising. As you mentioned, the Baal Shem Tov taught that that the world is like a mirror: if you see shortcomings in your fellow, you should know that they are truly your own. In fact, R' Nachman of Breslev famously taught a parable along these lines called "The Chandelier of Imperfections" that expresses the idea quite lucidly. In Chabad I've heard an additional twist: that either you share that flaw, or that you have been designated to fix it (the point being that the flaw is "yours" – either internally or externally, but nevertheless yours). But, like many Chassidic similar teachings, this teaching of the Baal Shem Tov needs to be understood properly or it can be easily confused, and for clarification I'll try to explain it the way that I understand it. After all, does that mean that if I see Reuvain rob Shimon, I am then a thief? If I see someone beat their child, am I then a child abuser?
My understanding of this teaching is that since we aren't impartial or objective about ourselves, G-d sends us messages and lessons throughout our lives to highlight shortcoming that we need to address – because, in truth, we are full of shortcomings of every variety (which is why we say every "Al Cheit" imaginable on Yom Kippur – as we have generally violated them all at least to some degree). And the reason that I might have a harder time if someone does something I might share in some way is because there is a guilty part of me that is uncomfortable being judged. It's me that I'm mad at.
Therefore if I see a fault in someone else, let it be a lesson to me to find that flaw in myself and address it. This is a perspective on life, and I would think that it's always true and applicable. The idea is that things don't happen without reason, and if you notice or become aware of someone else's shortcoming, that should have some productive relevance in your life (along the lines of what you discussed here and here, because we can (and should) turn everything into a positive.
And to take it one step further, Chazal teach (and this is emphasized by the Baal Shem Tov) that we are our own judge; G-d sends us cases that are similar to things that we have done, and it is our judgment of those objective cases that "pasken" our fate. Thus, aside from being an impetus to judge others more favorably, by realizing that the shortcomings of others are really hints to our own shortcomings, we end up living in a healthier reality: a reality that is positive and productive instead of judgmental, destructive and cynical. It's provides us with constructive critique and opportunities for introspection and guides us towards favorable and honest assessments. If we take this view seriously, we're really helping ourselves – a very positive use and opportunity created by what may be considered witnessing something negative.