Seeing our true selves


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares how to interrupt negative thoughts through the power of “re’eh,” or seeing with a charitable eye, also known as “ayin tova.”

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I want to ask you to try something. Look around. Wherever you are, go ahead and look. What do you see?

I’ll pull back the curtain a little bit here and tell you that I record these episodes in my basement. Here’s what I see: My desk, which is too messy. A seltzer can I need to recycle. A few books on the windowsill. A receipt I’ve been meaning to submit for reimbursement.

My exercise bike on the other side of the room — reminding me I haven’t ridden as much as I intended to this week. Items from childhood that have accompanied me on every move I’ve ever made, and that make me wonder why I keep lugging them around.

But here’s what I also see: My desk, which is where I get to do truly amazing work. An empty can from a very refreshing drink of seltzer I swigged today when it was hot. Books that I enjoy and learn from. A receipt for an important purchase I made for work. My exercise bike, where I move my body to stay healthy and strong. A box of wonderful childhood mementos I want to hold on to.

You can see what I did there, right? We could say I went from looking at the world glass-half-empty to looking at it glass-half-full. But I think it’s more than that.

This positive way of looking is what Jewish tradition calls ayin tovah, seeing with a charitable eye. It’s the opposite of looking with an ayin harah, a negative eye. And cultivating this ayin tovah, this positive or charitable eye, is what we’re going to focus on this week.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The Torah portion for this week, Re’eh, opens with these words: “Behold, See, I have set before you this day blessing and curse.” That word, “see,” there’s something so powerful about it. Because how we see isn’t just a physical process; it’s also a mental and spiritual one.

We can see blessings and we can see curses. And a critical part of our journey of renewal in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, coming up in just a few weeks, is both seeing clearly and, I think, seeing a little more charitably.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like a lot of people are conditioned to see with a negative or judgmental eye. I certainly was. When I was younger, I felt like I always looked at folks, and well, I’m ashamed to say it, but I looked down on them. I saw what they weren’t: not smart enough, not strong enough, not talented enough.

My junior year of college, I remember my good friend Josh Cahan sat me down and gave me one of the most important pieces of feedback I’ve ever gotten.

“Feigelson,” he said, “you could be a really great leader — if you’d start to see what’s right about people and not just what’s wrong about them.” Josh was challenging me to see with an ayin tovah. I feel like I’ve been working on that every day since.

But as Josh’s words also reflect, seeing with an ayin tovah isn’t just about viewing other people more charitably. It’s about seeing them, and ourselves, more honestly — and with a dose more hesed, or lovingkindness, than din, or judgment.

Seeing with an ayin tovah isn’t just about viewing other people more charitably. It’s about seeing them, and ourselves, more honestly.

My friend was able to speak candidly to me, to offer me an honest take that I couldn’t see myself — but he did it by talking about my potential. He spoke to me from a place of love, not judgmentalism. That’s what it means to see with an ayin tovah.

The work of this period on the Jewish calendar is often called heshbon hanefesh, making a spiritual accounting of ourselves. Like all accounting, spiritual accounting requires unflinching honesty. It requires seeing clearly.

If there’s a deficit, we need to report it. If we’ve overspent on work and underspent on family; if we’ve taken in too much self-flagellation and not enough self-compassion; if our spiritual balance sheet is out of whack: we need to see these things, see them clearly, and name them. How else are we going to get our spiritual house in order?

But it also requires seeing with a kind eye, not beating ourselves up. Because if we are harsh on ourselves for our shortcomings, inevitably we’re going to be harsh on others too — and, we’re less likely to make the changes we seek to make. 

So this week, I’d like to ask you to focus on seeing with an ayin tovah, a charitable eye. It’s a pretty simple practice, but I think it’s one you’ll be able to use frequently. It comes from a student and friend of mine named Keith.

Here’s what to do. If you’re like me, there are several times a day when a judgmental thought arises in your head, about other people, about yourself. Often that thought begins with something like the words, “Why don’t they just…” or “Why can’t I…?” Why don’t they just do it better? Why can’t I seem to do it better–whatever the “it” is.

Here’s Keith’s simple but ingenious practice: Whenever you notice that thought arising, see if you can interrupt it, and respond to it: If they — or you — could be doing it better, they — or you — probably would be.

Try it especially when it comes to what you see. Maybe you notice someone just walking by a piece of litter. Why don’t they just pick up the trash on the street, you might say. It’s so easy. When you say that, maybe you’re seeing…delinquency, laziness, lethargy. You might be feeling judgmental and maybe a little self-righteous.

But now, try to interrupt it: There’s probably a reason “they” (whoever “they” are) didn’t pick up the trash. Maybe they had an emergency to attend to. Maybe no one ever taught them to put trash in a trash can. Maybe they just didn’t notice it. Maybe it was just too hard at that moment.

If they could be doing it better, they probably would be. And what you’re seeing now is a human being, no better or worse than the rest of us.

You can practice this ayin tovah with yourself too: Why don’t I just exercise more, or eat better, or call the relative I should have called? Again, you’re seeing someone you don’t like, someone you’re judging.

But you know there are good reasons, which could have to do with other commitments — you were taking care of other people, you had work or school to deal with; or even deeper things: on a deep level, there’s some fear or embarrassment that’s holding you back. If you could be doing it better, you probably would be. And now that you see it, maybe you can do it better.

Blessings for the journey. I hope you’ll join us next time.

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