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Torah Attitude: Parashas Kedoshim: Find an excuse for your neighbour as you do for yourself
We are required to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt. The Talmud relates a story about a 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 accept that we do not know all the details, and we are ready to presume that others have valid reasons for their behaviour. If we can bring ourselves to love others as we love ourselves, we will always be ready to excuse their behaviour. The stronger we love another, the easier we give each other 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 parasha it says: "You shall not commit a perversion of justice … with righteousness shall you judge your fellow" (Vayikra 19:15). The Talmud (Shavuous 30a) explains that in this verse we are instructed to judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt (see Rashi Vayikra ibid).
The worker judged his boss favourably
The Talmud (Shabbos 127b) relates the following story that illustrates to which extent we are expected to give others the benefit of the doubt. A worker had come down from Upper Galilee to work for a farmer in the South for three years. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the worker asked for his wages so that he could go home to his wife and children for the holiday. The employer told him that he had no money. The worker then asked for produce. To this the employer said, "I have none". "Please give me a piece of land". "I do not have any." "Please give me some cattle". "I have none." "At least give me pillows and other bedding." "I do not have any." Without saying a word, the worker took his belongings and returned home with a sorrowful heart. After the Festival of Succos, the employer took the full wages and went to see the worker, bringing along three donkeys loaded with food, drinks and delicacies. After they had eaten, the employer gave him his wages and said, "When I told you that I have no money, what did you think?" "I thought that you had spent all of your cash flow on a business opportunity", said the worker. "And when I answered you that I have no land?" "I thought perhaps it was leased to others." "And when I said I have no produce?" I thought maybe 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 study Torah. However, I went to the rabbis down south and they absolved me of my vow. 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 this worker judged his employer, we could avoid a lot of bad feelings and eliminate many quarrels. We would live with everyone in peace. 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?
Judging the whole person
Our sages use an unusual expression when they teach us how to judge favourably. They instruct us to judge the whole person favourably (see Pirkei Avos 1:6). Let us try to understand what they say. Just as if we read a passage from a book out of context, it is unlikely we will understand its proper meaning. The same result happens if we take an occurrence from a person's life out of context. We cannot judge a person in the present, if we do not know the past. There is always more to a situation than appears at first. Often we do not really know the person that well. We do not know all the details that are going on 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 in the Talmud's story 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, after working for three years, our employer told us that he has no money or any items to pay our wages. However, if we realize that we only see part of the whole person and his situation, we realize that we cannot pass judgment, but must give him 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
We have another tool that can help us give others the benefit of the doubt. Three verses after the Torah instructs 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 another person the benefit of the doubt, if we love the person as we love ourselves. When we make mistakes, there is 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 have a natural love for their children, and teachers may care so much for their students, that if 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 implies 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
I remember a few years ago, a young couple was engaged to be married. They went to visit some friends. The man suddenly started to act totally irrational. His fianc? 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 wanted to find an excuse for him and then decided that he was not feeling well. The stronger we love another, the more favourably we judge each other, and the easier we give them the benefit of the doubt.
Do for others
The great Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir, Rav Chaim Shmulevits, would often share an amazing insight into human nature. He said that in general people make a mistake. They think that an individual will go out of his way to help someone that he loves, and that one will love a person who provides him with benefits. This is built on the assumption that receiving creates love. However, says Rabbi Shmulevits, the truth is just the opposite. The more we give and do for someone else, the more we will come to love that person. He bases this on the words of the Orchas Tzadikim (Gate of Love) who teaches that we can develop a love for others by extending ourselves to them physically or financially. The Orchas Tzadikim quotes our sages (Derech Eretz Zuta 2) who say: "If you want to be close to someone and love the person, do things for the person's benefit." The more effort parents put into their children, the more they will love them. The same is true in the relationship between any two individuals such as 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 on this, that the person's own produce is dear to him due to the labour he invested in it. Rabbi Dessler elaborates on this concept and explains that whenever we put effort and labour into something this will increase our feelings for that thing. If we invest time and energy in something, it could be a pet, a plant, even a painting or other piece of art. It does not matter. Since we will always see it as an expression of ourselves, or an extension of ourselves, we will slowly develop a love and appreciation for it.
Extending ourselves for others
The Torah obligates us to love our fellows as ourselves. The way to fulfill this obligation is by extending ourselves to 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.
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, who proclaim the oneness of Your name 'HASHEM is our G'd, HASHEM is one', will not be destroyed."
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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