Parashat Shelah: Objectivity and Prejudice
The story is told of a king who, upon reaching old age, decided to step down and hand over the reins of leadership to his talented son. The king had a group of seven advisors who served as the exclusive liaisons between the royal court and the people. These advisors wielded considerable power and earned great respect, as they represented the people’s only chance of communicating with the king. The advisors were, naturally, eager to ensure that they would retain their distinguished positions under the new king’s administration. Therefore, soon after the son ascended to the throne, the advisors approached him and began flattering him with effusive praise. Among the compliments they showered upon him was that he was especially handsome.
The king thanked the advisors for their warm words of praise, and assured them that they could retain their posts.
Sometime later, the advisors came to the king with a box, explaining that one of the kingdom’s provinces wanted to give the king a gift. The king opened the box, and saw a magnificent mirror. He had never before seen a mirror, and so this gift gave him his first opportunity to see his own image. When he looked into the mirror, he noticed how ugly he was. After his initial shock, he recalled how his advisors had complimented him for his looks. The king immediately called back the advisors and reprimanded them.
"You were lying when you called me handsome! You were trying to flatter me so you can keep your jobs!"
"Your majesty," they replied, "we are seven people, and the mirror is just one. Who are you going to believe – one mirror, or seven wise advisors?"
The king thought for a minute and agreed. The advisors then recommended to the king that he break the mirror, as it was worthless. The king accepted their advice, and they shattered the mirror and left the palace.
The king began going through the pieces, one by one, and when he looked at each piece, he saw his reflection. There was now no denying that according to the "majority view," he was ugly. Dozens of pieces of glass said so, and only seven advisors said otherwise.
He called back his advisors and angrily threatened to fire them for falsely flattering him.
"Your majesty," they said, "how can you listen to pieces of glass? They are inanimate objects who cannot think or analyze. We are intelligent, wise and experienced advisors. Our view is infinitely more valuable than that of these pieces of glass!"
This time, however, the king was not fooled. "No," he said. "The pieces of glass are perfectly objective. They show me the hard, untainted truth. You people are biased and prejudiced. You have reason to lie. And so I trust the glass, and I don’t trust you."
This humorous story has been told to explain why Beneh Yisrael were punished for believing the report brought to them by ten of the twelve spies who had gone to scout the Land of Israel. Even though they were the majority, these ten spies were biased. The Zohar comments that the spies, who were the leaders of their respective tribes, knew that they would not retain their positions after the nation crossed into the Land of Israel. It was therefore in their best interest to discourage the people by frightening them about the military power of the nations they would have to face. Yehoshua and Kalev, the two dissenters, viewed the situation with pure objectivity, and so their voices should have been heeded.
What lesson might we learn from this story?
In order to assess anything accurately, we need a "mirror," which shows us the situation precisely as it is, without the tainting caused by prejudice and bias. This is why self-evaluation is so difficult. As our Sages teach us, "En Adam Ro’eh Nig’eh Asmo" – people do not generally see their own faults. We all have an interest in judging ourselves favorably, and so we often fail to acknowledge mistakes and wrongdoing. Therefore, it is vitally important that we have people in our lives who can see things about us that we cannot see. The Torah in Parashat Bereshit calls a person’s wife "Ezer Ke’negdo" – "a helper opposite him." A wife helps her husband by opposing him, by showing him things about himself that he would otherwise not see. Abraham Abinu could not see the threat posed by Yishmael because he was his son. Sara, however, viewed the situation with objectivity and realized that Yishmael had to be sent away, and G-d instructed Abraham to heed Sara’s advice. Objectivity gives us a clear picture, whereas bias distorts our perception, and so Sara’s unbiased conclusion was the correct one. One of the many reasons why marriage is so important is because we all need somebody who objectively sees our faults and draws our attention to them in a loving, sincere manner so we can grow and improve.
Likewise, the Mishna famously exhorts in Pirkeh Abot, "Aseh Lecha Rab" – "Make for yourself a Rabbi." It has been suggested that the Mishna refers to "making" somebody who is not really a Rabbi into one’s personal mentor. Even if a person is not a Rabbi and scholar, he can serve as a mentor and guide by serving as a mirror, as a source of objective assessment for us. As it is so difficult to judge ourselves objectively, we must ensure to have people whom we can trust to point out to us our mistakes and with whom we can consult when we need an unbiased decision. By guaranteeing objectivity, we guarantee ourselves the possibility of growth and progress, that we will always be working to improve, rather than carryimg our faults with us throughout our lives.