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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Judging Favorably: A Middos Workshop

Based on the shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel

Part II

The first part of this discussion about how to judge people -- and how not to judge them -- discussed the basic obligation. A way to understand the principle is status quo -- assume people stay where we know they were before. Tzaddikim stay tzaddikim, even if we see them do something that appears wrong. If it is an ordinary person, then we try to tilt our interpretation of what we saw in a favorable direction. If it is an evil person, then we should assume they do more evil.

The basic issue in judging is to control our impulse to judge other people. Rabbi Siegal offers a number of strategies to help us not judge improperly. For one, we should remember that no one asked us for our opinion. Another point is that the only way to accurately judge is to be in the other person's own position, and that is impossible. So it is a very difficult task. Another set of approaches is to use the "black outlook" -- that the person did something wrong but excusable; or the "gray outlook" -- maybe what they did is wrong, but maybe it is ok; or the "white outlook" -- that what the person did is basically right or at least partially right.

Helpful Principles

These ideas sound terrific. Why not judge favorably? What a beautiful way to live. But bad habits seem to stick around like unwanted guests. How can we train our eyes and hearts to focus on the positive?

Several tools can help us brighten up what appear to be dark occurrences. First of all, we should keep in mind that nuances make a major difference. When hearing a story casting someone in a bad light, we should take note of the speaker's tone of voice and gestures. Did he tell the complete story, or did he omit crucial information? Did he spice up his story a bit? What did his tone of voice convey? All these subtle nuances can make a big difference.

Another tool we can use is working to understand people from their point of view. Our natural response to dubious situations is to filter them with our feeling of "what would we have done?" This is a faulty filter. Since no two people's neshomos are the same, it is impossible to understand another's outlook. We can never feel, "If I were in his shoes, I would have done better," because, as we have said, we can never be in another person's place. We don't have the same background, family, internal make-up, financial situation, etc. that are included in "being in his shoes." Once we stop pretending that we can understand a person's situation, we will find it difficult to judge others. Trying to identify with him and understand him as much as possible will help us look at him more positively.

Another exercise we can adopt is taking away negative intent. If someone says something shockingly insulting, assume that he must have said it without thinking. His misbehavior was unintentional.

Some people have a tendency to read into others' intentions. "She said this, but she really meant that. She must not like me." This habit produces nothing but hurt feelings and resentment. With honest introspection, we can stop our habit of applying negative intentions to our friends and family. Consequently, our new rose-colored glasses will beautify and simplify the world around us.

The baalei mussar give us a handy tool to use in judging others favorably: putting on a "krumme kop," a crooked head.

Sometimes we come across someone who sees things in a very perverted way. Speaking to such a person can be frustrating and confusing. Why can't they realize how crooked they are?

The following incident can help us answer this. I was once walking down a busy street and had a very disturbing experience. For some reason all the side streets intersected this main street on an angle. I wondered why the contractor couldn't design his streets in a more efficient way.

After a while I realized the answer to my problem. I was walking on a diagonal street. Indeed, all the side streets were laid out straight, but I was walking on a crooked path. Since my crooked path seemed to be straight, everything I encountered seemed to be crooked. In truth everything else was straight -- except for me who was walking on a crooked path.

Most people believe they are always walking on a straight path. In their eyes, whatever they do is correct and someone else must be making the mistake. Although they have a severe case of krumkeit-crookedness, they fully believe that they see things straight.

When we see someone behaving inexcusably, we should put on a krumme kop and create some outlandish explanation for his behavior, a new, contrived viewpoint. Surprisingly, this perspective may actually logically explain what seems illogical to me. Because what is clearly crooked to me may be perfectly straight to someone else.

We learn from this that the mitzvah to judge favorably even obligates me to find absurd possibilities that would make my friend's crookedness straight.

Let's be honest. We constantly come up with loads of excuses for our own less-than-exemplary behavior. I was tired, I was ill. I was under stress. I was thoughtless or careless, saying something without thinking.

Isn't someone else also entitled to excuses?

Some people have lower stress thresholds than others. Some people are less perceptive than others. Sometimes, it may even be a mitzvah to tell oneself, "He has no brains." Although it is derogatory, this attitude disposes of the bad intention.

When someone comes forth with information about someone you know, or even when you witness it yourself, realize that you do not have the whole story. Remember that the mitzvah of "betzedek tishpot" obligates us to judge a person to the point that we feel that had we been in his shoes, we would have done the same thing.

Most judgment problems arise when interacting with family and close friends. For example, a husband returns home after a long day in kollel or at work, mentally and physically exhausted, expecting a warm welcome and a wholesome meal. Instead, he enters a cluttered living room, with no sign of supper. He calmly asks his wife where supper is.

Here, the woman is faced with a choice. She could open up the floodgates and let out all of her day's frustration. The baby was crying nonstop. Yanky played in the mud and tracked it all over the freshly-mopped floor. Sari's whining grated on all of our nerves the whole day, etc. How could he ask where dinner is?

Or she could pause and consider her husband's position. In fact, she may try to put herself into his position: a hard day of learning/working and davening; then the long bus ride home, not to mention the traffic that brought him home half-an-hour late. And of course, being a man is something she can never do, so how can she even try to put herself into his shoes?

His question obviously has nothing to do with her day and everything to do with his. Maybe a little sympathy is in place. Later, she can sit down with him and nicely explain what a day she had, minus the bad feelings.

Hashem's Reciprocal Judgment

The gemora in Shabbos portrays incidents of people who were found in suspicious circumstances. When others were asked what they thought had happened, they presented favorable judgments. They were told, "Just as you were dan lekaf zchus, Hashem should judge you favorably." Hashem relates to us as we relate to others.

A perplexing Midrash relates that at the time of Ultimate Judgment, mal'ochim will come presenting evidence of our innocence and our guilt. If 999 mal'ochim point to our faults and even only one sees the good in us, we will be saved from annihilation. Chazal add that even if 999 parts of one mal'ach point to our fault and one part points to our good, we will also be spared.

How could that be? Where is the justice?

The Telzer Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Levin shlita explains that this scenario holds true if here in this world we were amongst 1000 people judging a situation and 999 judged unfavorably, but we were dan lekaf zchus. In that case, our favorable judgment will save us from 999 finger- pointing angels.

In addition Chazal teach us that this also holds true even if 999 parts of me saw the negative side of a situation and only one part of me saw the favorable side of someone's outlandish behavior. If I choose to lean towards that explanation, Hashem will likewise lean towards the one angle that is positive.

On the other hand, if 999 parts of someone are seeing the good but I choose to dwell on the one negative side, Hashem will also reciprocate, Rachmono litzlan.

In essence, the way we choose to view the actions of others is how Hashem will view us.

We may be familiar with the concept that at end of life, a person sees his whole life in front of him and is asked for his opinion. Of course, anyone evaluating himself would offer a positive verdict. However, as he sits back and watches his personal life, he is not aware that the life he is viewing is his own. How will he judge? What verdict will he give?

That depends on how he judged others during his lifetime. If he habitually judged others favorably, then he will automatically do so now to himself.

Realizing that how we judge those around us determines how we will be judged, can motivate us to develop the skill of seeing the good in others.

Peaceful Relationships

We are all familiar with Aharon Hakohen's outstanding pursuit of Sholom. Ovos DeRebbe Nosson tells us about two friends who were in the middle of a vicious dispute. Aharon approached one of them and described how bad the other one felt and how he desperately wanted forgiveness. Then Aharon approached the other one with the same story. Of course, the two readily made up.

How could this gimmick work more than one time? Surely the story got around and people realized what Aharon was up to. How could Aharon use this tactic time after time, always with positive results?

The answer is that deep down in peoples' hearts, they want friendship. Sometimes, pride gets in the way, but in reality they want to apologize. Hearing that their friend feels bad is enough to open them up and apologize, too.

Now we don't have Aharon Hakohens in our times, so we must do the work ourselves. We must remove pride from our hearts and work to create peace with those around us. It is up to each person to view his friends, family and acquaintances with love, giving them the benefit of the doubt. By opening our hearts to the love we feel deep inside, we will more easily judge those around us with favor and help bring peace and harmony to our world.

See also Part 1.


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