How would you respond?
1. Enmeshed in a personal crisis, you visit your life long confidant whose advice has served you so well before. As you are about to knock on the door, however, you hear your trusted friend recount to another a highly sensitive and confidential earlier incident in your life. You instinctively recoil in horror, rushing home as your blood boils in anger and disappointment. You cannot bear to confront your friend with this betrayal, but you receive repeated phone messages asking why you failed to show up for the scheduled meeting.
2. Your "significant other" abruptly cancels a planned evening out due to obligations at work. Your unanswered evening phone calls to the office are explained as resulting from the meeting being held in another room. You later find a receipt, dated that evening, from an expensive restaurant on the other side of town.
3. A prominent member of your community has entered your designer clothing shop to purchase an outfit for her niece's wedding. Your discomfort increases as she selects a most exclusive garment. It is not that she cannot afford the gown, but rather that three months earlier she returned to you, for refund, a designer suit she had purchased a week earlier, after which you discovered a wedding seating card in the jacket pocket.
As a student studying in Jerusalem, in the then budding community of Kiryat Mattersdorf, I can remember how once every week, a group of women would gather at the home of Yehudis Samet. They didn't come together to drink tea or to play cards, but to engage in high level thinking and spiritual growth. Rebbitzen Samet was leading her participants in the mitzvah of being "Dan L'Kaf Zchus," or giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. My older sister was among the many women who attended these meetings religiously - and I was the beneficiary of everything that my older sister thought important for me to know.
The discussions at the home of Rebbitzen Samet were not only about acquiring new information. Those who attended found their entire world-view had changed for the positive. Their powers of analysis and investigation became kinder and less subjective, while their abilities to withstand the tribulations of sometimes difficult relationships were strengthened.
Recently, drawing on her years of experience, Yehudis Samet compiled all she learned on this subject in a volume The Other Side of the Story. Today, not just a group of women in Mattersdorf, but the entire English-speaking world can benefit from this material and rise to new spiritual heights.
For those of you who have been with the Pardes program for a while you know that The Other Side of the Story is nothing new to us. Whatever the issue being discussed, we endeavor to bring out every side of the argument that is noteworthy. Conflict, tension, questioning every premise, taking nothing for granted and step-by-step logical analysis is what keeps thousands of men and women from every background involved in Pardes Torah discussions.
In this issue of Pardes, we will examine The Other Side of the Story from yet another angle. We don't for a moment question the value or importance of giving every man and woman the benefit of the doubt. However, the essential question is how do we balance this with the need to discern the truth, to be intellectually honest, and to ensure we're making the right decisions that will affect our lives and those of our families. We'd like to bring this issue into the center of your life. Most important, we'd like to ask you to join Yehudis Samet and the giants who preceded her in bringing goodness and kindness into a sometimes trying world.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
"Yehoshua ben Prachya says: Accept a teacher upon yourself; acquire a friend, and judge every person favorably." Pirkei Avos 1:6
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachya teaches us that every person needs two basic relationships in order to survive Ñ one with a teacher and one with a friend. One who allows oneself to be teacherless walks a slippery road. Who will objectively check the logic of his or her actions? Who will make sure he or she is not just taking the path of least resistance? Who will make sure that he or she will continue to grow?
Life without a friend is equally glum. We all need someone to share with. Which one of us from time to time, doesn't need the support that only a friend can offer? Who could stand alone?
Maintaining these two critical relationships is tricky. The relationships each of us cultivates - both with a teacher and with a friend - are, by nature, very close. Our expectations are very high, and we allow ourselves to be scrutinized. After all, we trust teachers and friends with our lives!
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachya's words teach us that the only way to keep those friends and teachers is by fulfilling the Mishna's third teaching - by judging every person favorably. Part of sharing a close relationship with someone is giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Judging other people to their advantage is not just a good idea, it is the law. When the Torah says, "...with righteousness shall you judge your fellow" (Vayikra 19:15), it is talking to the professional judge and layman alike. Whenever there are alternative ways to interpret our neighbor's behavior, we are commanded to lean toward the positive.
We are typically too critical of others. Too often we allow ourselves to focus on the negative aspects of our friends and neighbors, completely losing sight of their positive qualities. Too often we create standards for people that we ourselves could never live up to. We tend to jump to conclusions regarding an individual's behavior without thoroughly investigating the situation, we are often altogether too judgmental.
Even if we do find legitimate faults in our friends and neighbors, that flaw should not sound the death knell of a relationship. And it certainly doesn't eliminate all the good that the person has and does.
Yet, we are intelligent beings. We are taught to think critically, and to forge a realistic world view. Surely, it is no merit to be naive or gullible, to blindly accept matters at face value, or to allow ourselves be fooled. The happiness of credulity is fleeting and dangerous. If we always give the benefit of the doubt, doesn't that pave the way for others to take advantage of us?
So where do we go with our impressions based on experience, suspicions based on observation and well worn intuitions? What should we think when we feel that we have been betrayed? How should we judge when we are torn between generosity of spirit and that ill feeling of being taken?
These are the questions that this edition of Pardes asks. They are not easy. These questions influence both our relationships with others and the type of person that we are to become.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
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