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The psychology behind marit-ayin

Marit-ayin (avoiding the appearance of violating Jewish law) impels us to do good deeds instead of transgressions. Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, Executive Director of Midreshet Schechter, teaches us how we can care about what others see us doing and why, in fact, we should. Rabbi Gritsevskaya uses Parashat Matot-Masei to help clarify this challenging concept.

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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 look at others.

In this week’s parashah, Matot-Masei, we learn a different message. We hear the story of two tribes, Reuven and Gad. They like the land outside of Israel and want to stay 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 your conscience that 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. We compare this concept to caring about what people think of you to ensure that you do the right thing, although there is no direct translation for this idea. Being conscious of how others view our actions is very important in our tradition. 

The Talmud tells the story of the Avtinas family in charge of preparing the incense used in the Temple. Appearing in Tractate Yoma, the story 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 was to ensure that nobody would suspect they were using incense from the Temple for their benefit. Therefore, they were clear from God and from Israel.

It is hard to be aware of how your actions appear to others, and this is a very high standard to hold, although it can also be somewhat of a relief. When you always think about going against the others – not thinking about them, you are going against your nature because, as people, we always think about it. How others view our actions is of importance to us. Therefore, marit ayin tells us that we must influence others into thinking we are doing the right thing. The lesson of Parashat Matot-Masei is that we must communicate our desires to the other side. 

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 fight it and try to escape this prison, or we can try to change other people’s opinions and influence what others think about us. Either way, we need to be aware of this. The purpose of marit ayin is to help us be more aware of how people perceive us and to care about this. 

Irina Gritsevskaya is the Executive Director of Midreshet Schechter. She holds an LL.B. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an LL.M., and was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. A native of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Gritsevskaya made aliya as a teenager and currently lives in Tel Aviv.

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