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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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.
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
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.