What Other People Think About Me is None of My Business
There is nothing like waking up to a text that says, “Did you see what they posted about you on Instagram?”
On the one hand, when you are a public personality, especially if you put yourself out there by speaking, writing articles and expressing opinions, unsolicited criticism is inevitable and unsurprising. On the other hand, when it is expressed harshly or unfairly, it still stings.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “What other people think about me is none of my business.” While empowering and comforting, I have been wondering – is it true?
When negotiating with the tribes who wanted to settle east of the Jordan River, Moshe tells them once the land of Israel is fully conquered, then (Bamidbar 32:22) “Vihyisem nekiyim mei-Hashem u-miYisrael,” “And you shall be clean before God and Israel.” Based on this, the Mishna (Shekalim 3:2) obligates us to not only avoid doing a wrong thing, but to avoid even the perception that one has done a violation. We must remain innocent in the eyes not just of God, but of our fellow man as well. Indeed, the Chassam Sofer (Teshuvos 6:59) writes that he has been troubled his entire life by this obligation and responsibility. It is one thing to be clean in Hashem’s eyes, since He knows the truth of what we have done. By contrast, the expectation that we can conduct our lives in such a fashion that no person can cast a doubt or a criticism seems almost impossible.
We have a parallel rabbinic law called maris ayin, a prohibition against doing something that can be misinterpreted as a violation of Jewish law. You have likely heard this term invoked when discussing the permissibility of going into a non-kosher restaurant to order a kosher drink or use the restroom.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe o.c. 2:40, 4:82) explains that the concern of maris ayin is that someone will misinterpret that something wrong is in fact ok and will come to violate a law themselves. The similar concept of chashad, on the other hand, is behaving in a way that will cause others to be suspicious of your wrongdoing, even if it will not impact their own behavior.
The common denominator of both prohibitions is that in both cases, I must be concerned with what others think about me and regulate my behavior accordingly. Or maybe not.
Our parsha, Vayakhel, contains the obligation to assemble the kiyor, the laver that the Kohanim used to wash their hands and feet in preparation for the avodah, the service in the Mishkan. When the men considered the persecution and oppression they were suffering in Egypt and gave up on a brighter future, they refused to bring children into this world. The righteous women, though, remained optimistic, hopeful and filled with faith. They used their mirrors to beautify themselves and to draw their husbands close. Now they donated those same mirrors to the Mishkan to be used in its holy utensils. Rashi tells us that Moshe rejected this gift, disturbed that instruments of vanity would be used in the holy Mishkan, but Hashem told him that these were, in fact, the holiest gifts and they must be accepted.
Perhaps as the Kohanim prepared to do their service, they needed to look into these mirrors, evaluate their lives, their decisions and their behavior, and consider how they were perceived by those around them. Only when they could successfully look at themselves in the mirror and be satisfied could they continue to do the avodah, to serve in the holy Mishkan.
Yes, we must consider the impact of our behavior on others, how it will be perceived, what others might learn from it, and what type of impression or misimpression we might be giving. Maris Ayin is something we must be cognizant of. At the same time, if we can look at ourselves in the mirror and genuinely be satisfied, I believe we need not look back and think about how others are reacting; rather, we should remember what other people think about me is none of my business.
When people, particular strangers make nasty comments, it says much more about them than it does about us. Yes, we should consider if the message has merit, even (maybe especially) when we don’t like the messenger or the way they crafted their message. But if the message is unfair, if we can look at ourselves in the mirror and honestly be satisfied with what we see, we cannot and must not absorb the negativity cast our way.
When I was growing up in Teaneck, we had a barber named Chubby. On his mirror was a sign that said, “He who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away.” We simply cannot make everyone happy all of the time, nor should we try. We must be clean in the eyes of Hashem and do our best to behave in way that is beyond reproach to others. But once we do, not only should we not take too seriously what others are saying about us, we shouldn’t even listen.
A rabbinic colleague was recently sharing with me how his secretary was starting to tell him what others were saying about him. He cut her off and asked, is it important to know, do you think I did something wrong? When she said no, he said, “In that case, I would rather not know, please don’t tell me.” She was flabbergasted and in disbelief that he had the discipline to not want or need to know what was being said. If what other people think about me is none of my business, why would I even want to know?
At the end of our Amidah, we ask Hashem: v’limkalelai nafshi sidom, may my soul be silent to those who curse me. It is understandable that we ask for the courage and strength that our lips remain silent, but what does it mean to ask for our soul to do the same? Perhaps we are not concerned we will react or respond harshly, but we are concerned that the curse or criticism of another person might torment and torture our soul. And so we ask, let my soul remain silent, not become frazzled or frustrated by what others are saying about me.
We must do our best and when we are convinced we have done so, we must work on not caring too much about what people say. If all else fails, remember this truism (origin unknown): “When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks, when you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks, when you’re 60 you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.”
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