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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayakhel/Pekudei-HaChodesh: Happy to give others the benefit of the doubt
When we strengthen our belief and trust in G'd, and remember that only G'd knows what is really good for us, we can remain happy even when we do not understand G'd's ways. One must always judge another person favourably. Even if we cannot justify the wrongdoer's conduct, we will feel better by minimizing the evil that he did. The Torah refers to this concept as "judging our fellow with righteousness." "Its [the Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace." The cynic who does not trust anyone will accuse even a person of the highest integrity of being dishonest. It is only a few individuals who conduct themselves in a way that disturbs or even hurts us. When people harm and abuse us, we should look at them as if they are just G'd's messengers. When someone hits a dog with a stick, the dog will try to bite back at the stick because it does not realize that there is a person who holds the stick. Although there was a general decree that the Jewish people would be afflicted, every Egyptian performed their acts of cruelty of their own free will, and therefore they were liable for Divine punishment. "For G'd brings about rewards through good people, and punishments through evil people." Whenever a person is inflicted with pain, he should search his own conduct and see what he may have done wrong. We must always: (1) judge those who harm us with leniency and give them the benefit of the doubt, (2) remember that most of our acquaintances are nice and pleasant people, and (3) keep in mind that the wrongdoers are really messengers from G'd.
Belief and trust in G'd
Last week we discussed how one can be happy all the time. We mentioned the three areas of a person's life: (1) between man and G'd; (2) between man and his fellow beings; and (3) how a person relates to himself. We also explained how to look at the way G'd conducts the world. When we strengthen our belief and trust in G'd, and remember that only G'd knows what is really good for us, we can remain happy even when we do not understand G'd's ways. For He is the only one Who sees the complete picture. This is the essence of what the Talmud (Berachos 60b) relates that Rabbi Akiva taught, "A person should always say, 'Whatever G'd does, He does for the good.'"
This week we will discuss the second area. How can one stay happy even in the face of improper behaviour by other people? Everyone experiences these kinds of situations such as being cheated, being put to shame or slandered. Our initial reaction, when someone treats us unfairly or is abusive, is to immediately condemn the person and blame him for his conduct. However, in Parashas Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:15) the Torah instructs, "You shall judge your fellow with righteousness." Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 34b) that explains this to mean that one must always judge another person favourably.
Justify and minimize
This includes first of all giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. But it means more than that. For ourselves, and any one close to us, we have a natural tendency to find excuses to justify, or at least minimize, the wrong in our conduct. The Torah expects us to do the same for everyone else. Maybe the alleged wrongdoer did not have bad intentions at all, or did not realize to what extent his behaviour and words hurt us. Maybe that person had a difficult day, was not feeling well or had experienced problems at home or work, and this is what caused him to be agitated and irrational. When we conduct ourselves in this way, it will be easier for us to deal with the person. And even if we cannot justify his conduct, we will feel better by minimizing the evil that he did.
Judge with righteousness
It is amazing that the Torah refers to this concept as "judging our fellow with righteousness." We would expect the Torah to express this as being "lenient" in our judgment, rather than righteous. However, the truth is that in the vast majority of incidents, our assessment of the situation is exact when we follow the instructions of the Torah. For in most cases if we were to confront the alleged wrongdoer, we would find that the person either had a difficult day or did not realize how hurtful his actions or words were.
Paths of pleasantness and peace
This is a classical example of what King Solomon says (Mishlei 3:17): "Its [the Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace." For a person who conducts himself in this way and always gives his fellow beings the benefit of the doubt, and is lenient in his judgment of others, such a person will have a pleasant life and will live in peace with everyone around him. On the other hand, the cynic who is accustomed to look at everyone with mistrust, such a person will not be able to get along with anyone. And there is no limit to who he will accuse of misconduct.
Cynic not trust anyone
In the second of this week's two parshios, the Midrash Rabbah (51:6) questions why Moses felt the need to give an exact account of how the donated material had been used to build the Tabernacle. No one's integrity was on a higher level than Moses. G'd had complete trust in him, as it says, (Bamidbar 12:7): "My servant Moses, he is trusted in My entire house." However, says the Midrash, Moses heard how the cynics of the generation spoke about how he had become wealthy by handling the gold and silver and other precious materials used for the building of the Tabernacle. Therefore, Moses decided to make it crystal clear that everything donated had been used to build the Tabernacle. It was totally ridiculous that anyone would accuse Moses of taking anything for his personal use. But just like someone who does not believe in G'd, cannot trust G'd, and therefore will go around full of questions on the way G'd conducts the world. In the same way, the cynic who does not trust anyone will accuse even a person of the highest integrity of being dishonest.
Only a few who hurt us
In addition to giving our fellow beings the benefit of the doubt, and judging them favourably, we should always remember that it is only a few individuals who conduct themselves in a way that disturbs or even hurts us. Most of our acquaintances are pleasant people who we have a good time with. We must learn to focus on the pleasant experiences and good relationships we have with family and friends, rather than allowing the few individuals that we do not get along with, to make our lives miserable. This brings to mind what my late father used to say, that in any given situation we have more to thank for and be happy about than to complain and be upset about.
On a deeper level, we have to understand what really goes on when we have challenges in our inter-personal relationships. We quoted last week from the Rambam that one of our basic principals of belief is that G'd guides everything that happens and He alone is responsible for everything that takes place in the world. Based on this, when people harm and abuse us, we should look at them as if they are just G'd's messengers. This is how King David conducted himself when Shimi ben Gera cursed him. His initial reaction was not to touch him, for as he said to his men, (Samuel 2 16:10): "G'd said to him [Shimi ben Gera] curse David."
Dog bites the stick
Rabbi Simchah Zisel, the Alter of Kelm, explains this concept with a simple parable. When someone hits a dog with a stick, the dog will try to bite back at the stick because it does not realize that there is a person who holds the stick. In the same way, says Rav Simchah Zisel, when someone is harmed by his fellow being, he should realize that this person is just a stick in the hands of G'd, and he is really dealing with G'd Himself. However, if so, we may ask, why should the offender get punished since he is just doing G'd's will?
Why did G'd punish the Egyptians?
This is a very valid question that the Rambam already asked. This week we read a special Torah portion called Parashas HaChodesh. In this parasha, G'd instructs Moses about the month of Nissan, and all the commandments that the Jewish people had to fulfill already in Egypt in connection with the Pesach offering. These instructions were given to Moses prior to the last of the Ten Plagues, when the firstborn of the Egyptian males were killed. With this reading we begin to commemorate how G'd punished the Egyptians for all the evil they did towards the Jewish people and how G'd saved us and took us out of Egypt. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 10:5) asks, why G'd punished the Egyptians? G'd Himself had decreed and said to Abraham (Bereishis 15:13), "Your offspring shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they [the strangers] will oppress them." If so, all the Egyptians did was to fulfill the will of G'd? The Rambam answers that, although there was a general decree that the Jewish people would be afflicted, every Egyptian performed their acts of cruelty of their own free will, and therefore they were liable for Divine punishment. Similarly, we find throughout the Torah various punishments for people who misconduct themselves against their fellow beings, such as murderers, robbers, etc.
Reward through good, punishment through evil
This double aspect of every act is explicitly mentioned in the Torah by the commandment of making a fence on one's roof. In Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:8), it says, "When you build a new house, make a fence for your roof, and you shall not place blood in your house, for the one falling will fall from it." Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Shabbos 32a) and explains the unusual wording of this verse to mean that the person falling is being punished for his wrongdoings. But the owner of the house should make every effort not to be instrumental in G'd's punishment. As the Talmud continues, "For G'd brings about rewards through good people, and punishments through evil people."
Search conduct for wrongdoing
This teaches us that whatever happens to us, whether through another person or not, ultimately everything is an act of G'd. This is why the Talmud (Berachos 5a) teaches that whenever a person is inflicted with pain, he should search his own conduct and see what he may have done wrong.
Follow Torah's commandments
We now see that there are ways of dealing with our problems in the area of our inter-personal relationships that can help us to stay happy and content. First of all, we must always follow the Torah's commandment to judge those individuals who harm us with leniency and give them the benefit of the doubt. Secondly, when someone harms or hurts us, we must remember that most of our acquaintances are nice and pleasant people. And finally, we should keep in mind that the wrongdoers are really messengers from G'd Who uses them to remind us that we need to make an introspection of our own conduct. However, this in turn could bring about that we become unhappy about ourselves and our conduct. With G'd's help, we will discuss how to deal with that next week.
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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