Judging Judiciously

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09 Sep 2016
Yom Kippur

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com.

One of the sins which we confess and for which we ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur is the sin of judgment. While one might think that this sin is specific and applies to judges and others in the practice of law, the truth is that it applies to each of us, for each of us makes judgments about others and about situations in our lives throughout each day. As Rav Meislish explains in Viduy Hameforat, we are commanded that in judging others, we should always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. This applies to whether we question the reasoning of our rabbis or wondering about the motivation of a simple Jew in doing mitzvot. On an even deeper level, continues Rabbi Meislish, we must also give “the benefit of the doubt” to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ascribe good motives to Hashem when we are faced with challenges.

We may think that giving the benefit of the doubt goes beyond the letter of the law and is not a requirement. But Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim, citing the Malbim, informs us that this is an actual Torah requirement. The verse states, “B’tzedek tishpot et amitecha – with righteousness shall you judge your fellow. Amitecha, notes the Malbim, refers not to the exalted among you, but to every individual. Righteousness, giving the benefit of the doubt, is not a chesed that one has the option to pursue or not, but an actual commandment of the Torah, the commandment to pursue righteousness. And don’t think that because of your superior intelligence in judging the character of others, you are exempt from this law, notes Rabbi Silberberg in Sichot Hitchazkut, because this mitzvah applies to everyone.

We proclaim, “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” We glorify God not only in the “religious” mitzvot between ourselves and God, but also in the social mitzvot between ourselves and our fellow man, writes Rabbi Weissblum in Heorat Derech. But how can I work on giving the benefit of the doubt to someone I feel has wronged me?

Rabbi Schapira in Keter Melucha gives us some guidelines. First we must understand that much of our sinful behavior comes from deeply rooted negative characteristics, such as arrogance and jealousy. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to work on uprooting these traits. One of the ways to uproot these traits is to practice judging others favorably. There is no easy formula to achieve this, for each of us is wired differently with our unique set of characteristics. So the first step must be to understand ourselves, to know which trait is our obstacle and work on eradicating it. What I need to work on will undoubtedly be different from what you need to work on. Rabbi Shapira here quotes from the Ramchal’s introduction to Mesillat Yesharim: “The basis of man’s service to God is that he clarify … what his obligation is in his world.” In other words, not all the paths are equally effective for all people. One must identify the path that will help me reach my designated destination. Bringing an analogy from Rav Dessler, just as the beauty of a symphony lies in each instrument playing its assigned part in unison with the others and not in usurping the notes of others, so is it important for each to identify our role and the characteristic we must work on so our role becomes harmonious with the music of the world. We each must develop our personal talents to their fullest, and not rest on our laurels on what we have accomplished as compared to others. Given your talents, how much more can you accomplish than your friend whose strengths may not lie in this area?

Along these lines, Rabbi Schapira quotes from Pirkei Avot, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place,” to which the Sefas Emes adds, “You’ll never reach his place,” you’ll never have his background, his challenges, his strengths and his weaknesses. Therefore, we must always give him the benefit of the doubt.

Rebbetzin Feldbrand in Grow! brings a personal perspective to this issue. Sometimes our actions don’t turn out as we expect even though our intentions were good. We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, perhaps recognizing unusual circumstances that changed the outcome. But do we do the same for others? Do we ascribe good intentions to others, and find extenuating circumstances for their behavior?

The Slonimer Rebbe the Netivot Shalom, reminds us that Hashem created each person with his own unique world of circumstances, challenges and talents to accomplish the mission Hashem has set for him. If anything here were missing, the individual would be unable to accomplish his mission. Each of us is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the world, with our own rounded corners and jagged edges. If we were to take away one bit of the piece, it would no longer fit properly into the whole.

But we do not have the box top that shows us the whole picture. Therefore, notes the Lekach V’HaLibuv, when I declare my faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu by reciting the Shema, I cover my eyes, admitting that much is hidden from me. Since I do not see the whole picture, I am now ready to judge others favorably and can extend that to judging Hashem Himself favorably.

Toward the beginning of this discussion, we talked about working on our middot, our character traits. Rabbi Friedlander in Middos writes that we can significantly work on building humility, the antithesis of arrogance, by practicing judging others favorably. This is a fundamental trait in all of our relationships and it involves stepping out of myself and seeing other possibilities and points of view. If I am a fashion consultant, I tend to notice others’ clothes, and if I’m a professional organizer, I would notice how neat or messy someone’s home or office is. But if you practice minimizing your inherent perspective and looking for alternative scenarios, you are expanding your world to include others while diminishing your presence within that world; you are becoming less arrogant and more humble.

Rebbetzin Feldbrand gives an interesting analogy. She writes that we each have a pair of binoculars. Depending on which end we look through, things are either enlarged or minimized. When we look at our positive characteristics, we look through the lens that will enlarge the objects, and when we look at our faults, we look through the minimizing lens. On the other hand, we tend to do the reverse when looking at others. Turn the binoculars around. Maximize the good in others and minimize their faults.

To be happy, writes Rabbi Reiss, we must be able to see and learn to reframe every situation so that it has a positive spin. Sometimes we are like the child looking through the keyhole seeing someone cutting up beautiful cloth. Oh no, he’s ruining the cloth moans the child. But in fact this is a master tailor cutting the cloth to make a beautiful new suit for the king. We are often like that child, seeing only what is directly in front of us. We cannot see that when Hashem “cuts” us, it may be the first step in creating a beautiful and important part of our lives. Therefore, we ask Hashem to let us see the good.

We can approach our discussion from yet another perspective. Rabbi Silberberg in Sichot Hitchazkut tells us that the Targum translates betzedek tadin et amitecha as “with truth shall you judge your comrade. That means judging him in his truth, not in your truth. His core is still good, but sometimes the animal part of life overcomes his better nature. When someone pushed us and we fall, notes, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, we may be irate, until we actually see who bumped into us and realize he is blind. We all have blind spots that cause us to do things unintentionally, whether it is the blind man who pushed us or our sudden anger at him, and we should therefore give our fellow the benefit of the doubt.

In a related vein, Rav Ahron Soloveichik discusses the dual personalities within each of us. We each have our pure, beautiful essence that strives for nobility and holiness. But we also have a stranger within us, conflicting, animalistic instincts that push us toward sin. The way to bring a person to teshuva is to let him see that his core is pure and sacred, and the sins and inclinations toward improper behavior are animal strangers invading his body. Show him his great spiritual strength. While we may stumble and fall, our essence remains pure and upright.

The Tallelei Chaim, the Chalban, makes a beautiful, profound connection between the special Yom Kippur service and the individual service of each Jew on that day. One day a year the High Priest enters the innermost chamber of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, the place where he, as the representative for our entire people, comes in closest contact with absolute purity and sanctity. So too, on this day, must each of us enter into our innermost, deep, pure core and recognize our own sanctity, and that any sins attached to me are completely superficial. With this recognition, it becomes easier to reframe our actions and do teshuva.

When I can reframe and give myself the benefit of the doubt, says the Sifsei Chaim, I am shrinking myself and making room for another. As I shrink myself, my sins shrink with me. Further, writes Rebbetzin Feldbrand, Hashem mirrors our behavior towards others when He judges us, so that if we judge others favorably, Hashem will also look for ways to judge us favorably, or, conversely, if we judge others harshly, Hashem will judge us harshly as well.

Rabbi Frand in We’re All in This Together quotes a line from the Yom Kippur liturgy: “You know the secrets of the world and the hidden secrets of all who live.” But the Hebrew word for secrets is also translated as contradictions. Hashem knows that each of us is a mass of contradictions and inconsistencies. As Hashem sees them, so must we too search them out and resolve them so that we can merit a new year where we judge others and Hashem judges us righteously, with love, and with the benefit of every doubt.

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