The Spectator & The Agent
“When I endeavor to examine my own conduct, I divide myself as it were into two persons; and that I, the examiner and the judge, represent a different character from the other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator. The second is the agent, a person who I properly call myself, and on whose conduct I was endeavoring to form some opinion.” Adam Smith – The Theory of Modern Sentiments
When I first read the comments of this eighteenth century philosopher I focused on the importance of a person accepting the role of Smith’s ‘Spectator.’ I happened to glance at this quote in an old notebook and realized that although most of us fail as the Spectator, the more significant failure is our denial of the role of what Smith called ‘The Agent.’
If the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash can find so many causes for the destruction of the Temple, how could the generation of the destruction have failed to notice what they were doing wrong? How could they have failed to appreciate the consequences of their actions when so many of prophets warned them of the coming cataclysm? They even failed to acknowledge after the fact that they were the agents of their own destruction. They refused to accept that they were active Agents in the grand movements of history all around them.
A person who rejects his role as an ‘Agent,’ can never become ‘The Spectator;’ the examiner and judge of his conduct.
The Midrash discovers the earliest allusion to Tisha B’Av in God’s “question” to Adam immediately after the sin: “Ayeka” – “Where are you?” – can also be read as “Eichah!” Adam was hiding. Rather than emerge from his hiding place among the Garden’s trees and say, “I ate of the tree You prohibited to me and realized that I am naked,” Adam hid. He was passive. He did not see himself as an Agent who could repair, or, at the very least, address his sin. He rejected the role of Agent and thereby forfeited the role of Spectator who could judge himself and find a way to repair his sin.
He failed his one test and no longer believed he could be an Agent. His destruction began, not with the sin, but with his sense of failure and inadequacy. He shed the role of Agent, and hid; he could not even look at himself for all his shame.
Perhaps the failure of the Spies, the first Tisha B’Av, the generations of the First and Second Temples, was not their refusal to be Spectators and evaluate their behavior; it was their fear of accepting the role of being Agents, active participants in all the terrible events around them.
How often do we view ourselves as victims of the anger of other people? Most of the people with whom I speak begin with how unreasonable a spouse or friend can be. There are also the people who immediately accept that God is punishing them when something bad happens: they cross the street without looking, are almost hit by a car, and declare, “God was punishing me for arguing with my parents!” It’s as if we are all victims, none of us, Agents. No wonder we have so much difficulty becoming The Spectator who can judge his own actions!
I fear that if we approach Tisha B’Av as a long list of our suffering over the millennia of exile, we will continue to accept the role of victim rather than Agent, and never achieve Spectator.
Our approach to Tisha B’Av must be that of an Agent, who accepts that he plays an important role in life and the world. We must search for ways to actively rebuild all that has been destroyed. It is not enough to say, “I will not sin during the Three Weeks,’ for that is not the statement of an Agent. The Agent asks himself, “What can I do to change my life and the world?” The Agent is active.
Only the Agent can become The Spectator who can evaluate himself during the period of Teshuva that follows close on the heals of Tisha B’Av.
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