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Torah Attitude: Parashas Kedoshim: Excuse your neighbour as you excuse yourself


We are required to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt. The story is told of the worker who judged his boss favourably. By following the peaceful paths of the Torah, we avoid a lot of bad feelings and eliminate many quarrels. Judging the whole person means that we must realize that we do not know all the details, and we must presume that others have valid reasons for their behaviour. If we could bring ourselves to love others as we love ourselves, we would always be ready to excuse their behaviour. The stronger we love another, the easier we give them the benefit of the doubt. By extending ourselves for others we develop a love for them. By judging each other favourably, we will grow into one unique nation.

Give benefit of the doubt

In this week's Torah portion it says: "You shall not commit a perversion of justice with righteousness shall you judge your fellow" (Vayikra 19:15). Rashi quotes the Talmud (Shavuous 30a) that explains that in this passage we are required to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt.

The worker judged his boss favourably

The Talmud (Shabbos 127b) relates a story to illustrate to which extent we are obligated to give others the benefit of the doubt. A worker who descended from Upper Galilee was working for an employer in the South for three years. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the worker requested payment of 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; the employer said, "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." So the worker took whatever belongings he had of his own and returned home with a sorrowful heart. After the Festival of Succos was over, the employer took the wages and went to see the worker with three donkeys loaded with food, drink 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 answered 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."

All paths of Torah are peaceful

If we would judge each other as favourably as the worker judged his employer, we would avoid a lot of bad feelings and eliminate many quarrels. We would live with everyone in peace and contentment. As it says, "The ways of the Torah are pleasant and all its paths are peaceful" (Mishlei 3:17). The question is how can we accomplish this attitude?

Judging the whole person

Our sages teach us to judge the whole person favourably (see Pirkei Avos 1:6). Just as when we take a passage from a book out of context, it is unlikely we will have a clear understanding of its proper meaning. It is no different if we take a passage from a person's life out of context. We cannot properly judge a person in the present if we do not know the 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 presume 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 our sages say (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

There is yet another tool that helps us give others the benefit of the doubt. Three verses after the Torah commands us to judge our fellow with righteousness, we read the very famous verse: "You shall love your fellow as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18). It is much easier to give a person the benefit of the doubt if we love the person as we love ourselves. When we make mistakes, there appears to be no limit to the number of excuses that we can 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 always have excuses for the ones we love. As King Solomon says, "Love covers all wrongdoing" (Mishlei 10:12). This teaches that if we manage to develop a genuine love for others we will automatically give 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, there was a young couple engaged to be married. They went to visit some friends. The man suddenly started to act totally irrational. The woman excused his behaviour and told the others: "he is not feeling well today." Although there really was nothing wrong with him, in her great love, she assumed he was not feeling well. The stronger we love another, the more favourably we judge that person, and the easier we give them the benefit of the doubt.

Do for others

The Orchas Tzadikim (Gate of Love) teaches that we can develop a love for others by extending ourselves to them physically or financially. This is based on the words of our sages (Derech Eretz Zuta 2): "If you want to be close to someone and love the person, do things for the person's benefit." Rav Chaim Shmulevits explains that in general people make a mistake. They think that we will love someone who provides us with benefits. The assumption is that receiving creates love. However, the truth is just the opposite. The more we give and do for someone else, the more we will come to love that person. The more effort parents put into their children, the more they will love them. The same is true in the relationship between a dedicated teacher and students.

One better than nine

This is not limited to relationships between human beings. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 38a) teaches that a person would rather have one measure of his own produce that nine measures produced by someone else. Rashi comments that the person's own produce is dear to him due to the labour he invested in it. Rabbi Dessler elaborates on this and explains that whenever we put effort and labour into something this will increase our feelings for that thing. Whether it is a pet, or a plant, or even a painting, a person will see an expression of oneself, or an extension of oneself, in whatever one invests time and energy.

Extending ourselves for others

The Torah obligates us to love our fellows as ourselves. The way to fulfill this obligation is by extending ourselves for others. Once we have accomplished this, we will find it easy to fulfill the obligation to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt. And when we are able to do so, we will be surprised how often we judge correctly with true righteousness.

Unity of the Jewish people

When we experience and hear frightening events in Israel and elsewhere 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. It is sad that Jewish blood need to be spilt to unify us. The Jewish people are described as "the nation of One". We are supposed to be a nation of unity. If we do not unify on our own, G'd will bring about our unity through fear of our common enemies. 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 neighbour 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 is 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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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel