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“In righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:15).
The Torah commands us to give people the benefit of the doubt when we are not sure whether or not their actions were permissible. For example, if someone sees a Jew driving on Shabbos, and he doesn’t know whether he is desecrating the holy day or taking a seriously ill person to the hospital, he should judge him favorably and assume the latter.
Actually, it depends. If the one whose actions are in doubt is generally known to be an extremely pious, G-d fearing person, then, even if his actions are most probably forbidden, yet, if there is even a one percent chance that it is permissible, we are required by the Torah to judge him favorably.
If, however, the fellow is someone who is average in his observance, sometimes succumbing to sin, then the Torah requires us to give him the benefit of the doubt only if there is at least a fifty per cent chance that it was OK. If the odds that it was forbidden outweigh the chances that it was permissible, then the Torah allows us to regard it as questionable – but certainly not to rule that it was forbidden. According to the Rambam, even in such a case it is an act of piety to judge him favorably.
Only if someone is a known desecrator of the Torah, should we assume that what he did was forbidden.
In practice, this commandment is difficult to obey. We are quick to assume that others are misbehaving (although we almost always assume that we, ourselves, are perfect or close to it) and we rarely give even tzaddikim (righteous people) the benefit of the doubt.
To help us out somewhat, Rebbetzin Yehudis Samet wrote an excellent book, published by Artscroll Mesorah Publications, entitled The Other Side of the Story. In it we are told many stories of situations where we, as well as the people involved, would be quick to accuse. However, after a bit of proper investigation, we find out the other side of the story, and it is often quite surprising and even embarrassing. Following are two stories, which I particularly enjoyed and I’m sure you will too. Let’s try to remember them the next time we question someone’s actions.
Tova Rothman needed a babysitter. She had been calling girls all evening, but everyone was either busy or not home, and it was getting too late to make any more calls. By now she was desperate. One of her daughters said eagerly, ”Hey, Ma! What about my friend’s sister, Dassy Engel?”
“That’s worth a try. We haven’t used her in a long time. Do we still have her number?”
A minute later she was dialing the Engels.
“Oh, Dassy, I’m so glad you’re home. I hope you can do me this favor. I need a babysitter for two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. It’s very important and I must leave at exactly two o’clock. Are you available?” Tova was thrilled when Dassy agreed and she hung up with a sigh of relief.
The next day at two o’clock Tova was standing with her coat on, ready to walk out as soon as Dassy arrived. The minutes ticked away and no bell was ringing. No one was knocking or calling to say she’d be right over. It was 2:05 and still no Dassy. Tova called the Engels, but their line was busy. Dassy seemed like such a nice girl. How could she be so irresponsible? Tova let her family know how she felt about a girl who gives her word and then lets you down. She gave them an earful! — and they were only spared the rest by the ringing of the telephone. Tova dashed over. It was her husband. Whatever she hadn’t managed to say till now to Dassy’s discredit she let out on Mr. Rothman. And for good measure, she threw in a few choice observations about the Engels. Tova might have said more, but she cut herself short so she could try the Engel’s phone again. This time it rang.
Imagine Tova’s astonishment when Mrs. Engel answered and in reply to her question, “Is Dassy home?” said, “Oh, are you the one who called her about baby sitting? You hung up and I guess you didn’t realize that you never gave her your name!”
It was late Tuesday night when the phone rang. A good friend of mine by the name of J.P. was calling. “Perhaps you can help me,” he said. “I’m making a wedding soon, and I’d like you to recommend a good photographer.”
After giving it some thought, I gave him the name of a man who is both an excellent photographer and is also very reasonably priced. “I’ve heard about him,” came my friend’s reply, “but I was also told that he was unreliable.”
“Oh, really,” I said, quite surprised. “What makes you say so?”
“Well, I’m told that he was recently hired for a bar mitzvah and he first arrived after it was half over. He missed half the affair. There’s no way I’d hire a person who is so irresponsible,” J.P. said.
It’s certainly a severe charge, I thought to myself. “Are you sure about it?” I asked. “That’s a very strong accusation!”
“I’m quite positive,” was his reply. “Yisroel was the head of the band that night, and he told it to me himself. In fact, I met someone else who attended that same affair, and he verified the facts. I’m not making it up. It’s 100% true! Go check it out yourself.”
“I sure will,” I said. I’ve learned to be very skeptical as to the authenticity of any story, and I also knew that even if perfectly true, there might be a good explanation.
“Maybe due to unforeseen circumstances he was delayed?” I said to the caller, trying my best to judge favorably. “Perhaps there was some sort of emergency. What makes you so sure that it was a case of negligence or pure laziness?”
“Perhaps you’re right,” replied J.P., “but I just can’t risk it. Besides, there is no reason in the world for coming late. He should have started out early enough so that even if his car broke down he could have taken a car service and made it on time. There is absolutely no good excuse for a photographer to walk in after half the affair is over!”
It was hard to argue with him. He had a strong point, and my defense wasn’t too convincing. When I hung up the phone I found myself in a real quandary. Could I really recommend someone who is unreliable? Was it truly negligence on his part? Was my argument in his defense just a cover-up for his lack of responsibility? Truthfully, I wasn’t really convinced myself of his innocence, so how could I convince someone else?
Firstly, I decided to check out the story on my own to see if it was really true. I called the musician, who was a close friend of mine, and he verified the entire story. There was no question as to its authenticity.
The very next day, I bumped into my good friend, the photographer. I brought up the subject of the bar mitzvah in question.
“Is it true that you arrived halfway through the bar mitzvah?” I asked.
“Yes, it certainly is,” he said. “But why are you asking?” he wanted to know.
“I just recommended you for a job, and the people refused to take you. They claimed you were unreliable because you didn’t come on time.”
He looked at me in disbelief and shock, and then began telling me his story. I listened very carefully.
“The job was not mine at all,” he began. “The photographer who had been hired for the job failed to show up. I received an emergency call in the middle of the affair to come down immediately. Despite being very busy at that moment, I dropped everything I was doing and raced down to the hall as quickly as possible.”
With a hurt look written on his face, he added, “I only did it as a personal favor to them.”
Shema Yisrael Torah Network