We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses. – Abraham Lincoln
The story goes that, in the 1950s, a large North American shoe conglomerate decided to venture into the emerging market of Africa, dispatching two salesmen to explore the prospects of business there.
After one week, the company received a telegram from the first salesman: “Returning at once. No chance for business. Nobody here wears shoes!”
There was no word from the second salesman for several weeks, until, one day, an urgent message arrived. “Send 15,000 pairs of shoes at once! Opening a chain of stores. Nobody here has shoes!”
One of the keys to a successful and happy life is to appreciate that everything is a matter of perspective.
And nothing illustrates this better than the spies sent to explore the Land of Israel and its natives. The story is familiar, and its sorry conclusion even more so. Ten of the spies returned with a bleak view of the land that caused the people to lose trust in G-d (Bamidbar 13:31-32). But two of the spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, returned with an altogether different perspective, finding the land to be “exceedingly good” (Bamidbar 14:7), and telling the people that taking it would be a cinch.
Same land, same natives, two perspectives. What gives? The spies saw the land as dirt and stones. They saw one dimension (Ma’ayan Bais HaSho’eva, Bamidbar 14:1). But they should have seen the land as Yehoshua and Kalev did: a land infused with holiness. Had the ten spies seen things from that perspective, their report would have been completely different. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The spies delivered their report on Tisha B’Av. G-d punished the Jewish people’s senseless crying by making it a night of tears for generations. Indeed, it was on Tisha B’Av that both Temples were destroyed. All because the spies “used their mouths to say things that they did not see with their eyes” (Sanhedrin 104b). They failed to see the true spirit and meaning of the land.
But if the Temples were destroyed as a consequence of failing to discern different perspectives, they’ll be rebuilt because of our penchant for doing so. When R’ Akiva and his cohorts saw a fox run through the Temple’s ruins, R’ Akiva laughed while the others cried (Makkos 24b). Where others saw ruins and desecration, R’ Akiva saw hope and rebuilding. One scene. Two perspectives.
What we see with our eyes is susceptible to different viewpoints and different perspectives. Friedrich Nietzsche wasn’t completely wrong when he opined that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Two people can see the same thing and perceive it differently.
That’s the first step to judging others favorably—seeing that there is another perspective (see Shabbos 127b; Shabbos Inbox, Queens Jewish Link, Vol. IV, No. 7). Indeed, the Torah itself can be viewed in 70 “faces” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15). To the wicked, the Evil Inclination seems like a thin thread, while to the righteous it is like a tall mountain (Sukkah 52a)—again, purely a matter of perspective.
Successful people understand that nothing is possessed of only one perspective. There are always (at least) two.
In 1940, Winston Churchill was signing the Victoria Cross to a member of the Home Guard who had rescued five lives under a burning building destroyed in the blitz. The soldier said, “Mr. Churchill, you honor me.” Churchill replied, “Ah, but you are wrong. It is you who honor me.” Likewise, Churchill once was asked whether he was proud to have ten thousand people gather to hear him speak. “No,” he replied, “because ten times as many would come to see me hanged.” Churchill was a master at seeing things from multiple perspectives.
While ministering to Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps, R’ Eliezer Silver met one Jew who seemed more bitter than most, making it clear to all that he wanted no part of the Torah or its commandments. When R’ Silver asked why he was so bitter, the man told of a fellow who somehow managed to smuggle a pair of Tefillin into the concentration camp. Word quickly spread that there was a pair of Tefillin, and throngs of starving, near-death Jews yearned to don them, even if just for a moment.
When the owner saw how his Tefillin were in such high demand, he agreed to share them—at a price: one day’s paltry food ration per person. Countless eager customers agreed to this most awful “payment.”
The survivor turned to R’ Silver. “If those Tefillin inspired such selfishness in their owner, how can I ever again see them as objects of holiness?”
“Why focus on the selfish owner of the Tefillin?” retorted R’ Silver. “Focus instead on all those who lined up to risk death just to don the Tefillin momentarily.”
The Berdichover Rebbe made a career of seeing apparently negative situations from a more positive perspective. One Tisha B’Av, he encountered a non-observant Jew eating. “My dear sir,” the Rebbe said, “you certainly have forgotten that today is Tisha B’Av, a fast day.”
“No, I did not forget,” the man replied.
“Ah, then, you certainly have not been feeling well, and you are under doctor’s orders not to fast.”
“I’m perfectly healthy,” the man said.
The Berdichover lifted his eyes towards the heavens. “Master of the Universe! See how honest Your children are. I have offered this man several opportunities to excuse his behavior, but he insists on telling the truth—even to his own detriment!” Where others would see a transgression of laws most severe, the Berdichover saw unfettered honesty.
The Kapischnitzer Rebbe, R’ Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel, once visited Eretz Yisroel accompanied by another great sage who bemoaned the spiritual decline in the country. “That’s odd,” the Rebbe countered. “I was also just there, but I didn’t notice any of the things you harp on. There are new yeshivos springing up all the time, and new shuls and new mikva’os too.”
The spies failed miserably in this regard. When the spies saw the inhabitants burying their dead, all they could see was the enemy’s strength and the land’s inhospitable atmosphere (Sota 35a; Bamidbar 13:32 and Rashi and S’forno ad loc.). They missed the point entirely. G-d had in fact caused the Canaanites to suffer many deaths so the spies would go undetected.
“See—I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil. And you should choose life” (Devarim 30:19). Really? Life over death? I need the Torah’s advice to make that choice? Of course not. Choosing life over death is obvious. But the ability to discern in everything both good and bad—the two perspectives—is not. The Torah tells us to see the good and the bad in everything, and then to make the obvious choice.
The ten spies were also told to see—“see the land” (Bamidabr 13:18)—but they failed to pick up on the different, deeper perspective on the land. They saw sand where Yehoshua and Kalev saw spirit.
It is no coincidence that we are instructed to adorn Tzitzis so as not to “spy” after our hearts and after our eyes (Bamidbar 15:39). Tzitzis are the antithesis of the spies. To the uninitiated, Tzitzis might be some wool and cotton with strings, but we are challenged to see them as much more: their blue color is to remind us of the sea, which is to remind us of the sky, which is to remind us of G-d’s Throne of Glory (Menachos 43b). We are to look at the Tzitzis and see more than meets the eye. And that is meant to inspire the service of G-d.
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At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the oldest delegate, Benjamin Franklin was asked to be the first to sign. At the front of the chamber was the chair from which George Washington had presided. The chair back had the design of a sun low on the horizon. Franklin rose to speak. “There were days when I thought this picture was a setting sun. But I now know that it’s a rising sun—a new day for America, a new dawn for freedom.”
Maybe you’re unhappy with your job or your home or your family or your friends. But compared to others, your situation may not be so bad after all (Ben Ish Chai, Shemos 20:4). It’s all a matter of perspective.
We don’t necessarily control our circumstances, but we do control how we experience them. Like Franklin, we can see things as the setting sun or as the rising sun. The perspective we choose is up to us.