A mitzva for everyone
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 24, 1998
Today begins (at least for Ashkenazim) the period of most intense mourning over the destruction of the Temple. Our sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred and that God will not proclaim the Final Redemption until
there is peace among the Jewish people.
With that in mind, a group of women in one Jerusalem neighborhood decided, over a decade ago, to meet during this period for a day devoted to studying the prohibition against lashon hara, derogatory or damaging speech.
The idea caught on. Today the number of neighborhoods involved has mushroomed to over 40, and similar programs take place annually in dozens of cities around the world. Next Tuesday night over 10,000 Hebrew-speaking women (and another
4,000 English speakers the next night) will gather at the Jerusalem International Convention Center for speeches on the subject of sharing in others' misfortunes and burdens.
Training oneself not to speak derogatorily about one's fellow Jews does not come easily. Success first requires a complete reorientation in how we view other people. Once we have made an unfavorable judgment in our own mind of another's
character or behavior, the impulse to verbally express that judgment is often almost irresistible. To avoid speaking negatively about others, then, we first have to learn how to judge them favorably.
No country in the world could benefit more from a healthy injection of judging others favorably than Israel. In our increasingly Balkanized society, the number of those whom we see as defined by their group membership proliferates daily. We assume
that we know everything relevant about others once we know their political or religious affiliations. Others have lost their individuality, and with it their humanity, in our eyes.
The habit of reflexively criticizing others, whether it be individuals with whom we are in contact or members of other societal groups, extracts a heavy price. When our sages taught that jealousy, the pursuit of physical pleasure, and the quest for honor
drive a person from the world, they meant this world.
Take jealousy. To the extent that we see others as competitors for pieces of a limited pie of material goods, and someone else's gain as our loss, everyone we meet becomes a potential enemy. Turning a jaundiced eye on one and all is truly a recipe for making life, if not short, at least nasty and brutish.
The opposite approach - judging others as whole beings, not in terms of one trait, constantly reexamining our judgments of others to see if there is not another way to view a particular event, looking at interactions from the other person's point of view
- enriches life.
Those who are always critical and quick to notice other's faults embitter their lives and those of everyone around them, whereas the wise are eager to find the good in others: 'Fools heap condemnation,' Proverbs teaches, 'but for the upright there
is satisfaction.' Another verse in Proverbs proclaims, ' [F]or the upright of heart, there is gladness.' And the Targum offers a surprising interpretation of 'the upright of heart: those whose hearts are full of explanations [in evaluating others].'
THE ability to overlook, reevaluate, and judge favorably is the precondition for any satisfactory human relationship. Pirkei Avot instructs us to acquire a friend and to judge every person favorably.
Without the latter, the former is impossible. And when we see the good in others, they too will view us more positively: 'As water reflects a face back to itself, so one's heart is reflected back to him by another' (Proverbs 27:19).
Clearly, then, just as one doesn't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread, so too one need not be religious to appreciate the mitzva of judging others favorably.
Each of us regularly demonstrates a remarkable capacity to judge favorably, at least regarding one person: ourself. If we are late for a meeting or forget to do something we promised, we are quick to excuse ourselves in light of the many demands on
us. But if another does the same to us, we can find no justification for such rudeness and assume that it reflects how little they care for us.
We are sure that our intentions are pure, even when our actions hurt others, but are unwilling to consider intentions when judging the impact of others' actions on us. We happily sail through life acknowledging various shortcomings, while remaining
confident that we are all in all good people, but tend to see others only in terms of the trait that annoys us.
We expect others to divine our personal history, know our hot buttons, understand our idiosyncratic sense of humor. But when it comes to judging others, we forget that we are frequently in the position of someone who starts a novel at chapter three without knowledge of the characters' background.
And far more often than we imagine, our evaluations of others are plain wrong - based on missing information, hasty assumptions, or misunderstanding. Anyone who doubts this is invited to read Yehudis Samet's charming The Other Side of the Story. In dozens of stories, culled from personal experience, we watch airtight cases dissolve in front of our eyes, just like in a good mystery novel.
The late Skulener rebbe was imprisoned by the Romanian authorities for continuing his religious activities under Communism. Eventually international pressure secured his release, and he was able to come to the United States, where he helped many to
One of those for whom he worked the hardest was the very woman who had
informed on him to the authorities. Asked why, the rebbe answered simply: Can you imagine what she must have been subjected to before she informed?
Few of us will reach the level of the Skulener rebbe, but each of us can go a long way to bringing peace among ourselves by learning to turn a favorable eye on our fellow Jews.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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