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Torah Attitude: Parashas Emor: Judge the whole person
How can we be expected to love other people, some of whom we might feel have harmed us in one way or another? "You shall judge your fellow with righteousness." We are obligated to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt. A person who is not ready to give the other the benefit of the doubt, eventually his heart will be full of hatred and he cannot wait for an opportunity to take revenge against all the people that he imagines and feels try to harm him. The Talmud (Shabbos 127b) relates an amazing story about an employer and employee that illustrates to which extent we are obligated to give others the benefit of the doubt. "And you shall judge the whole person favourably." It is much easier to give others the benefit of the doubt if we love them as we love ourselves. The stronger we love another, the more favourably we judge that person, and the easier we will give them the benefit of the doubt. Obviously G'd does not need to give someone the benefit of the doubt, as He is never in doubt. G'd treats everyone "measure for measure" according to the person's own conduct. The Jewish people are described in our prayers as "the nation of One", a nation of unity. By loving our fellow beings as ourselves, by judging each other favourably, and by fulfilling all the other commandments of the Torah, the Jewish people will grow into one unique nation. G'd is one.
How expected to love?
In last week's Torah Attitude we discussed how to achieve true and lasting love be extending ourselves to our fellow beings. However, the Torah (Vayikra 19:18) says: "And you shall love your fellow as yourself." This is very broad. We cannot be selective and limit our feelings of love to our close family and friends. How can we be expected to love other people, some of whom we might feel have harmed us in one way or another?
Judge with righteousness
In order to answer this we must go back and analyze the verses leading up to the Torah's commandment to love one another. A little earlier (Vayikra 19:15) it says: "You shall judge your fellow with righteousness." The Torah enumerates in the following verses several commandments that apply to interpersonal relationships: "You shall not go around gossiping among your people … You shall not hate your brother in your heart … You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge." The list finishes off with "you shall love your fellow as yourself."
Benefit of the doubt
The first commandment of this group obligates us to judge our fellow beings with righteousness. On a simple level, this means that the judges in a Beis Din must make sure that their judgment is righteous. But Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Shavuous 30a) that this commandment instructs us to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt. This is the key to the pleasant way of the Torah (see Mishlei 3:17). When we give each other the benefit of the doubt our relationships will last and even survive a crisis. This applies at home with our spouses and family, as well as in our social circles with friends and acquaintances. And this is the next thing the Mishnah mentions that one needs to acquire Torah.
Heart full of hatred
Every argument, dispute and disagreement starts with a lack of judging the other person favourably, and it often ends off with a total breakdown of the relationship. Earlier in Pirkei Avos (1:6) it says: "Get yourself a mentor and acquire a study partner for yourself. And judge everyone favourably." This teaches us that a person, who is not ready to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt, will not be able to study Torah under a mentor, or with a partner. He will even have a problem to teach students. Such a person will always feel that he is not being treated fairly, and that other people are against him. He will often have what to gossip about as he has plenty to tell how he is being mistreated. Eventually, his heart will be full of hatred and he cannot wait for an opportunity to take revenge against all the people that he imagines and feels try to harm him. Had this person followed the Torah's instructions to judge his fellows favourably, his life would be so much more pleasant and enjoyable. For he would have realized that basically everyone is nice to him and treats him with fairness. He therefore has absolutely nothing to gossip about and for sure does not hate anyone. It would never occur to him to take revenge or bear a grudge against any of his friends for he has a good relationship with all of them. And such a person will truly be able to fulfill the Torah commandment to love one's fellow as oneself. It all starts with judging each other favourably, but once we master that we will be able to get on with each other and have loving and lasting relationships.
The worker judged his boss favourably
The Talmud (Shabbos 127b) relates an amazing story that illustrates to which extent we are obligated to give others the benefit of the doubt. "A worker descended from Upper Galilee and worked for an employer in the South for three years. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the worker requested his wages so that he could return to his wife and children for the holiday. The employer said, 'I have no money'. The worker asked for produce; said the employer, 'I have none'. 'Give me land'. 'I do not have any land.' 'Give me cattle'. 'I have no cattle.' 'Give me pillows and bedding.' 'I do not have any.' And so the worker took whatever belongings he had of his own and returned home with a sorrowful heart. After the Festival of Succos, the employer took the wages and went to see the worker bringing along three donkeys loaded with food, drinks and delicacies. After they had eaten and drunk, the employer gave him his wages and asked, 'When I answered you that I have no money, what did you suspect?' 'I thought that you had spent all of your money on a business opportunity', said the worker. 'And when I told you that I have no land?' 'I thought perhaps it is leased to others.' 'And when I said I have no produce?' I thought perhaps you had not yet tithed.' 'And when I told you I have no pillows or bedding?' 'I thought perhaps you had donated all your property to the Temple.' The employer exclaimed, 'That is exactly what happened!' 'I donated all of my property because my son Hyrcanus would not occupy himself with Torah. But when I went to the rabbis down south, they absolved me of my vows. And as for you, just as you judged me favourably, may G'd judge you favourably.'"
Judging the whole person
We have already mentioned that it says earlier in Pirkei Avos (1:6): "And you shall judge everyone favourably." Some of the commentators point out that the literal translation is "And you shall judge the whole person favourably." This teaches us that just as if we would take a passage from a book and read it out of context, we would not have a clear understanding of its proper meaning. The same thing happens if we take an individual's situation out of context without looking at the broader picture. We cannot properly judge a person in the present if we do not know his past. There is always more to a situation than at first appears. Often we really do not know the person that well. We do not know all the details of what is happening in the person's life at any particular time. By reminding ourselves that we do not necessarily know all the details we can train ourselves to always assume that there is a good reason why the person is acting contrary to our expectations. Just like the worker presumed that there were valid reasons why his employer had no money or property to pay his wages, we should assume that others have valid reasons for their behaviour as well. This is not an easy task. Most of us would flare up if we worked for three years only to be told that there was nothing left at the time to pay our wages. However, if we realize that we only see part of the whole person and his situation, we can understand that we cannot pass judgment, but must give the benefit of the doubt. As it says later (Pirkei Avos 2:5), "Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place." As long as you have not reached his place, i.e. have a clear picture of his complete situation, you must give him the benefit of the doubt.
Love your fellow as yourself
We mentioned in last week's Torah Attitude that we can fulfill the commandment to love our fellows as ourselves on several levels. Once we have achieved even a basic level of love, it will in turn help us and make it easier to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. For it is much easier to give others the benefit of the doubt if we love them as we love ourselves. When we make mistakes, there is no limit to the number of excuses that we make for ourselves. "I didn't mean it." "I didn't know." "It's not my fault." Since we love ourselves, we always have excuses for our own behaviour. Similarly, parents naturally love their children and teachers may care so much for their students that when a third party criticizes their behaviour, the parent or teacher immediately comes up with an excuse, even if the behaviour was clearly wrong. We will always have excuses for the ones we love. As King Solomon says, "Love covers all wrongdoing" (Mishlei 10:12). Therefore, once we manage to develop a genuine love for others we will automatically give them the benefit of the doubt and find excuses for their behaviour.
The stronger the love, the easier the benefit of the doubt
A few years ago, a young couple who were engaged to be married, went to visit some friends. The young man suddenly started to act totally irrational. His fianc?e excused his behaviour and told the friends that he was not feeling well. Although there really was nothing wrong with him, she "decided" in her great love that he was not feeling well. The stronger we love another, the more favourably we judge that person, and the easier we will give them the benefit of the doubt.
G'd never in doubt
We still need to clarify why the Torah instructs us to judge each other favourably using the expression "with righteousness". "Righteousness" denotes what is right according to the letter of the law, whereas "favourably" refers to going beyond the letter of the law. Another question arises at the end of the story that we quoted from the Talmud. What did the employer mean when he wished his employee that just as he had judged him favourably, so G'd should judge him favourably. To judge someone favourably generally means to give him the benefit of the doubt. This is only appropriate by human beings who do not know what really happened. But G'd knows exactly what transpired and what the person had in mind, so obviously G'd does not need to give someone the benefit of the doubt, as He is never in doubt.
Measure for measure
We can answer both of these questions with the above explanation of judging the "whole person". The Chofetz Chaim explains that G'd judges a person in one of two ways, dependent on the person's own conduct. If the person judges his fellow beings with strictness and always stands on his rights, then G'd will likewise judge this person according to the strict letter of the law. But if the person gives his fellow beings the benefit of the doubt, and judges the "whole person", then G'd too will look at the circumstances of the person's conduct and judge him favourably. This is not because G'd is in doubt, but because G'd treats everyone "measure for measure" according to the person's own conduct. This is what the employer wished for his employee. Since the employee had judged his employer favourably, he blessed him that G'd should judge him in a similar fashion. This is the righteous judgment of G'd and this is what He instructs us to emulate. And when we do so, we will be surprised how often we judge correctly with true righteousness. For in most cases, people's intentions are no as bad as they appear to be.
Unity of the Jewish people
After the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the world is holding its breath, fearing that Al-Qaeda will retaliate in the United States or elsewhere. When we experience fright, we are brought closer together. In times of danger and calamity, differences of opinion, that were tearing people apart, do not appear to be so important anymore. The Jewish people are described in our prayers as "the nation of One", a nation of unity. But if we do not unify on our own, G'd will bring about our unity through fear of our enemies.
One unique nation
However, unity in itself is not the ultimate purpose. During the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuous we have a special mitzvah (commandment) of counting the Omer. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 306) explains that this counting was initiated by the Jewish people themselves after the exodus from Egypt. They had been informed that they were going to receive the Torah and in anticipation of this great event they all started to count the days. By the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were united in their acceptance of the Torah and to live by its commandments. This is the true purpose of Jewish unity. By loving our fellow beings as ourselves, by judging each other favourably, and by fulfilling all the other commandments of the Torah, we will grow into one unique nation, living up to our special role and purpose.
G'd is one
As we go through this period of the year and strive to reach this unity, we cry out to G'd in our daily prayers after Tachanun: "O Guardian of the nation of one, protect the remnant of the nation of one, so that the nation of one will not be destroyed, those who proclaim the oneness of Your name HASHEM our G'd, HASHEM is one."
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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