Turning Outwards to See Inwards

By Yakov Danishefsky


Have you ever surprised yourself with the advice you offered someone in a difficult situation? Did you walk away wondering why you can’t apply such insight to your own challenges? This is a fairly common phenomenon and there’s a good reason for it. The Gemarah in Brachos comments, “ein chavush matir atzmo mi’beis ha’asurim” – “a prisoner cannot free himself from jail.” We are all prisoners of our own experiences and no matter how intelligent we may be, a prisoner cannot see beyond the walls of his cell. In some ways, being on the inside affords a more nuanced and intimate appreciation of the challenge; but it also limits our ability to consider new possibilities.

For this reason, Ibn Ezra (Shemos 2:3) suggests that the individual to lead the Jews out of Egypt could not have been one of the slaves themselves. Only someone from the outside could reinvent the downtrodden people. And thus, Moshe Rabbeinu’s upbringing was divinely ordained to include a vastly different background than the people he’d be saving. Moshe grew up as a prince and he lived in the lap of luxury. He entered the scene from an entirely different vantage point.

Ibn Ezra (Shemos 14:13) utilizes this concept again to understand the Jews’ panic right before the splitting of the sea. He wonders why they were so afraid if at that point they were such a large group and so well-armed. Why didn’t they consider fighting the oncoming Egyptians? Ibn Ezra explains that the Jews didn’t consider this possibility because they couldn’t consider this possibility. They saw themselves as slaves and the Egyptians as their masters and they were bound by this assignment of roles. The newly liberated people were, in fact, not yet liberated. Moshe’s leadership, together with the miracles of the plagues and the splitting of sea aimed to introduce the Jewish people to new possibilities, externally and internally.

From this perspective, the story of Yisro, that we’ll read in a few weeks, becomes so poetic and sweet. At that point, after everything Moshe has been through with the Jewish people, he is no longer an outsider looking in. He is a deeply entrenched insider and as such, some of the nation’s systemic flaws are invisible to him. Suddenly, a new outsider appears and offers a simple but profoundly helpful insight. Moshe implements this idea and it serves for the betterment of the people and himself. And thus, human nature repeats itself: Moshe, once the outsider, helps a group of insiders by offering a new perspective. Now, as the insider, Moshe becomes the recipient of a new outsider’s creativity and insight.

Much of what we’ve just described is largely why seeing a therapist can be so effective. The opportunity to explore and analyze a person’s life experiences with an objective listener can be profound. After all, therapists see therapists too; because no matter how insightful, experienced, and well-trained a person is, we are all insiders to our own minds, emotions, and challenges. But I don’t want to make this about seeing a therapist per-say. Instead, I want to simply emphasize the importance of speaking to someone. A spouse, friend, parent, adult child, relative, Rabbi, teacher, mentor, (or therapist). There are no guarantees, but you literally have no way of knowing what new perspectives they may be able to offer.

It takes courage and strength to turn outwards and open yourself up to someone else’s input. The Torah’s messages of Moshe and Yisro serve as prime examples of just how essential and meaningful an outsider’s point of view can be.