This week’s parasha, Parashat Matot-Masei tells the story of the tribes of Reuven and Gad settling outside the borders of Israel upon receiving Moshe’s permission.
Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya uses this passage as an opportunity to bring up a meaningful lesson on the concept of marit ayin and the value of being aware of your actions before people and God. .
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“I don’t care what you think about me, I don’t think about you at all.” That’s what Coco Chanel used to say and we say this a lot – do what you want, do what you feel, don’t really look at others.
In this week’s parasha, Matot-Masei, we learn a different message. We hear the story of two tribes, Reuven and Gad. They really like the land outside of Israel and want to stay there with their families. They approach Moses and tell him, “we will go with you to war, and our families will stay here and later we will come back to the Land.” Moses replies: “If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before the Lord for battle, and every man among you shall cross the Jordan before the Lord, until he drives out His enemies before him and the Land shall be conquered before the Lord, and then you shall return, then you shall be cleared before the Lord and Israel.”
The commentators ask why be vindicated in two different ways? It is enough to be cleared before the Lord, and before your conscience, you are doing the right thing. Why should you care what the other tribes say? Why is it also important to care what other people will say about what you are doing? From this verse, our sages uncover the concept of marit ayin. There is no direct translation for this but it is the idea of caring about what people think of you in order to ensure that others see you as doing the right thing and not causing any wrongdoings.
In our tradition, it is very important to be conscious of how others view your actions.
The Talmud tells the story of the Avtinas family who prepared the incense used in the Temple. The story appears in Tractate Yoma and tells us how the brides from this family abstained from wearing perfume. If the men were marrying women from outside, they would also not wear perfume. The reason behind this was to ensure that nobody suspected that they were using incense from the Temple for their personal benefit. Therefore, they were clear from God and from Israel.
This is a very high standard to hold to and it is very hard to be aware of how your actions appear to other people. But, it can also be somewhat of a relief, because when you always think about going against the others – not thinking about them, you are really going against your nature, because, as people, we always think about it. It is important to us how our actions are viewed by other people. Therefore, marit ayin actually tells us that we have to influence others to make sure they think that we are doing the right thing. We have to communicate our desires to the other side. This is the lesson of Parashat Matot-Masei.
Virginia Woolf said, “the eyes of others, our prisons, their thoughts, our cages.” It seems very important to us what others think of us and how they view us. We can either fight it and try to escape this prison, or we can try to change other people’s opinion and influence what others think about us. Either way, we need to be aware of this. This is the purpose of marit ayin, it helps us to be more aware of how people perceive us and to care about this.
Irina Gritsevskaya directs Midreshet Schechter, Schechter’s program offering bet midrash study to the general public in Israel and Midreshet Yerushalayim, Schechter’s network of Jewish educational programs, camps and communities in Ukraine. She holds a BA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a law degree from Bar Ilan University and was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. A native of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Gritsevskaya made aliya as a teenager and currently lives in Ramat Aviv.