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Judging Favorably

by Yehudis Samet

[There is a mitzvah in the Torah called "Judging others favorably." This means if we see someone in a wrongdoing, we must first to stop, think, and consider if perhaps we are missing one crucial factor, that changes the story from the way it appears.]

Take pleasure in making people look good: A virtuous man was walking with his students and they chanced upon the dead carcass of an animal. The students said, "What a foul odor is coming from this carcass!" the virtuous man said, "How white are its teeth!" (Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar Hacniya, chap 6)

Which was true? Which was more obvious?

Both observations were true. Even though the white teeth were much less obvious and easy to overlook in the face of the offensive, overpowering odor of a dead carcass, the virtuous man found something nice to see and to say. He chose to concentrate on the positive. If this can be said concerning a dead animal, how much more so should we try to find the good in a human being.

The Chofetz Chaim reiterates this idea: "A person should try to perfect his character so that he can be counted amongst the worthy, and not the unworthy. What are the traits of the worthy? They help others whenever they are able; they conceal other peoples' weaknesses, as they would their own. And if they see a person angry at another, they try to calm him, by giving him an understanding of the other person's position...

"The unworthy do the opposite. They harm others and are happy when others fail. They reveal their faults, and if a person makes a mistake, they interpret it as intentional wickedness. They cause fights and incite one person against his friend and think they are clever for all this!"

The Chofetz Chaim goes on to ask: What is considered true wisdom and strength? A person who sees his friend at the edge of a roof and gives him a push, or one who sees his friend falling and tries to catch him? One who finds his friend down and kicks him, or one who finds his friend already in the pit and tries to pull him out?

This is the essence of judging favorably. It means that if we find our friend in a situation where it seems he has already "fallen," when suspicions of guilt surround him, we use our mental resources to lift him out of that mess, both in our own mind and in the minds of others. This is what finding merit is about. This is the character trait to which we are asked to aspire. (Shemiras HaLashon)

Fulfillment of this mitzvah offers us another benefit: It counteracts the evil of slander.

Lashon hara, literally "evil talk," refers to a statement which belittles others or causes them damage or embarrassment, and serves no constructive purpose even though it may be true. The mitzvah of judging favorably is directly followed in the Torah by a warning concerning lashon hara, to teach us that judging favorably and refraining from speaking lashon hara are closely connected. (Leviticus 19:15, 16)

The Chofetz Chaim tells us: The more we judge favorably, the less slander we will speak. (Shemiras HaLashon)

If we don't think negatively about others in the first place, then we are not in danger of such thoughts ever being expressed. When we are constantly battling with negative thoughts, there is always the possibility that they will prevail and be articulated. If we can obliterate or at least neutralize suspicions as they arise, by judging favorably, then there remain no negative thoughts lurking in our mind waiting for a chance to escape in the form of slander.

The connection between judging favorably and slander is illustrated with the biblical story of the spies:

The spies were sent to tour the Land of Israel before the whole nation entered for the first time. When they returned, they gave a negative report about what they had seen. The people believed them, and because of this the entire Jewish nation was penalized by having to spend 40 more years in the desert, corresponding to the 40 days of travel by the spies.

We know that punishment is given measure-for-measure. Why then did the nation have to spend 40 years in the desert when slander was spoken only once? Where's the justice? Where's the "measure for measure"?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that they were punished for the root of the sin -- 40 days of seeing the negative aspects of the land. If they hadn't seen the negative, they wouldn't have come to speak negatively. Thus the punishment was measure-for-measure. (Sichos Mussar)

Almost all the cases of slander in the Torah occurred because people did not judge favorably. (Sefer Chofetz Chaim) For example, Miriam spoke against her brother Moses to her other brother Aaron: "We are also prophets, yet we did separate ourselves from our spouses -- why did Moses?" We are told that she misjudged the situation because she lacked information: She did not know that Moses' level of prophecy had no equal, and therefore his actions were justified. (Sefer Chofetz Chaim)

We think we know, it seems clear, and yet sometimes...

Tova Rothman needed a baby sitter. She had been calling girls all evening, but everyone was either busy or not home, and it was getting too late to make any more calls. By now she was desperate. One of her daughters said eagerly, "Hey, Ma! What about my friend's sister, Dassy Engel?"

"That's worth a try. We haven't used her in a long time. Do we still have her number?

A minute later she was dialing the Engels.

"Oh, Dassy, I'm so glad you're home. I hope you can do me this favor. I need a baby sitter for two o'clock tomorrow afternoon. It's very important and I must leave at exactly two o'clock. Are you available?" Tova was thrilled when Dassy agreed and she hung up with a sigh of relief.

The next day at two o'clock Tova was standing with her coat on, ready to walk out as soon as Dassy arrived. The minutes ticked away and no bell was ringing. No one was knocking or calling to say she'd be right over. It was 2:05 and still no Dassy. Tova called the Engels, but their line was busy.

Dassy seemed like such a nice girl. How could she be so irresponsible? Tova let her family know how she felt about a girl who gives her word and then lets you down. She gave them an earful! -- and they were only spared the rest by the ringing of the telephone. Tova dashed over. It was her husband. Whatever she hadn't managed to say till now to Dassy's discredit she let out on Mr. Rothman. And for good measure she threw in a few choice observations about the Engels. Tova might have said more, but she cut herself short so she could try the Engel's phone again. This time it rang.

Imagine Tova's astonishment when Mrs. Engel answered and in reply to her question, "Is Dassy home?" said, "Oh, are you the one who called her about baby sitting? You hung up and I guess you didn't realize that you never gave her your name!"

Judging favorably is not only the leading remedy for our inclination to speak slander, it also offers the primary relief for another related "illness," one that is undiagnosed, unacknowledged, and particularly insidious because of its anonymity: accepting and believing slander without clarifying its validity.

Chapters have been written by the Chofetz Chaim on this topic bringing to us the ageless wisdom of the Torah: Be wise, be discerning, don't believe everything you hear. Be willing to challenge your perceptions and be willing to reconsider.

It was late Tuesday night when the phone rang. A good friend of mine by the name of J.P. was calling. "Perhaps you can help me," he said. "I'm making a wedding soon, and I'd like you to recommend a good photographer."

After giving it some thought, I gave him the name of a man who is both an excellent photographer and is also very reasonably priced. "I've heard about him," came my friend's reply, "but I was also told that he was unreliable."

"Oh, really," I said, quite surprised. "What makes you say so?"

"Well, I'm told that he was recently hired for a bar mitzvah and he first arrived after it was half over. He missed half the affair. There's no way I'd hire a person who is so irresponsible," J.P. said. (J.P. is not required to hire this photographer even though this decision is based on an unproven suspicion. However, he was wrong in accepting this rumor as absolute truth.)

It's certainly a severe charge, I thought to myself. "Are you sure about it?" I asked. "That's a very strong accusation!"

"I'm quite positive," was his reply. "Yisroel was the head of the band that night, and he told it to me himself. In fact, I met someone else who attended that same affair, and he verified the facts. I'm not making it up. It's 100% true! Go check it out yourself."

"I sure will," I said. I've learned to be very skeptical as to the authenticity of any story, and I also knew that even if perfectly true, there might be a good explanation.

"Maybe due to unforeseen circumstances he was delayed?" I said to the caller, trying my best to judge favorably. "Perhaps there was some sort of emergency. What makes you so sure that it was a case of negligence or pure laziness?"

"Perhaps you're right," replied J.P., "but I just can't risk it. Besides, there is no reason in the world for coming late. He should have started out early enough so that even if his car broke down he could have taken a car service and made it on time. There is absolutely no good excuse for a photographer to walk in after half the affair is over!"

It was hard to argue with him. He had a strong point, and my defense wasn't too convincing. When I hung up the phone I found myself in a real quandary. Could I really recommend someone who is unreliable? Was it truly negligence on his part? Was my argument in his defense just a cover-up for his lack of responsibility? Truthfully, I wasn't really convinced myself of his innocence, so how could I convince someone else?

Firstly, I decided to check out the story on my own to see if it was really true. I called the musician, who was a close friend of mine, and he verified the entire story. There was no question as to its authenticity.

The very next day, I bumped into my good friend, the photographer. I brought up the subject of the bar mitzvah in question.

"Is it true that you arrived halfway through the bar mitzvah?" I asked.

"Yes, it certainly is," he said. "But why are you asking?"

"I just recommended you for a job, and the people refused to take you. They claimed you were unreliable because you didn't come on time."

He looked at me in disbelief and shock, and then began telling me his story. I listened very carefully.

"The job was not mine at all," he began. "The photographer who had been hired for the job failed to show up. I received an emergency call in the middle of the affair to come down immediately. Despite being very busy at that moment, I dropped everything I was doing and raced down to the hall as quickly as possible."

With a hurt look written on his face, he added, "I only did it as a personal favor to them."

The more we practice judging people favorably, the less likely we are to speak against them, because...

- the more insight and comprehension, the less disapproval.

- the more we consider possibilities, the less we will censure and blame.

- the more we make an effort to reconsider, the less chance there will be to pass hasty, superficial judgments...

because understanding and condemnation are mutually exclusive.

When you hear a report of slander, act like a judge in court who isn't allowed to pass judgment until he hears both sides. You can't believe what was told to you until you consider the other side of the story.

Giving the benefit of the doubt is also an effective method for dealing with anger (Erech Apayim). So many fiery outbursts could be avoided, so many prolonged resentments and grievances could be redressed and even prevented from developing in the first place if we were willing to use this tool.

When we feel ourselves churning and burning, cooking and steaming, we are harming ourselves physically and emotionally. Much has been written and documented about the negative effects of anger and grudge-bearing: High blood pressure, ulcers, lower back pain, tension headaches -- the list is long. Trying to understand the other side of the story frees us from our imprisonment in the gloomy darkness of condemnation and resentment. It's the key that unlocks the door to a room full of light. When understanding comes in, anger almost automatically leaves through the back door.

I'm enrolled in a program in a hospital in Jerusalem, and I'm receiving credit from a school in America that sponsors this program. I have a supervisor here who gets paid from the institution in America.

One day in January, I came into the office as usual at about 9:00 a.m. My supervisor, Ofra, was fuming. She was stomping around the rooms and muttering under her breath. I asked her what was the matter, and she said she didn't want to tell me because it wasn't professional. I was sure it wouldn't take Ofra too long to become unprofessional, and, sure enough, 15 minutes later she couldn't contain herself anymore.

She told me that she had just gotten her paycheck for supervising me. Now mind you, I had been part of this program since October 1993, and it goes until June 1994. Ofra told me that the reason she was so angry was that the people in charge had the chutzpah to send her a check dated November 1, 1994. She could not understand how they could have the nerve to give her a check postdated for almost a year later. I said I personally couldn't believe it because I go to this school and I'd never heard of such a thing. But she really let go, and she was screaming and yelling and telling everyone the whole story.

Now it was already 10 o'clock, and she said she was going to go to the National Association to consult with one of the counselors there to ask them what she should do. She wanted to put in a complaint about this program and how they send students here to be supervised and how their supervisors are paid, or, rather, not paid.

Ofra kept calling the number of the National Association. I was a little embarrassed, because I felt that maybe I should call somebody in America to let them know before she put in a complaint about them. If they got a big complaint about the school, who knew what could happen.

So she was calling and calling, and the phone stayed busy. Finally she got through and they said no counselor was available. Ofra was willing to leave work and go to this organization to show them the check and file a complaint about the whole situation, but they told her not to bother to come because no one was there to help her. By now it was already 11 or 12 o'clock. Ofra was furious. She didn't even want to talk to me.

Well, finally it was one o'clock and time for me to leave. Ofra still hadn't calmed down. Finally, I said to her, "Are you sure that's what the check says -- November 1, 1994? Can you just show me?" She just got more annoyed. "You think I can't read?" And then she said, "You know, I don't think you believe me! I'm going to take out that check and show you."

She took out the check, and the check read: 1.11.94. "This check is for January 11, 1994," I told her.

"What?" She looked at me, obviously confused. Then Ofra remembered that European and American dates are reversed. In Israel, 1.11.94 means November 1, 1994.

She was very embarrassed. For five hours she had done nothing but rant and rave. Now she was left muttering, "For this I raised my blood pressure? For this I got so angry and missed a day's work?"

"Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: Appoint a teacher for yourself, acquire [buy yourself] a friend, and judge everybody favorably" (Avot 1:6).

The fact that these seemingly unconnected statements are grouped together indicates that there is a special relationship between them. And so we learn that the acquisition and retention of an educational mentor and guide, as well as harmonious companionship, depend to a great extent on our ability and willingness to judge favorably...

Can friendship survive on a long term basis if we're not willing to judge our friends favorably? Even between friends, and especially between close friends, there are many opportunities for misunderstanding. The closer we are, the more shortcomings we see and the more tests we face...

Reprinted with permission from and from "The Other Side of the Story." Published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd.



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