Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 – Kindness in Thought
Our ancient rabbis taught: One who judges another favorably is himself or herself judged favorably. They said: Once there was an issue confronting the Torah scholars. They wanted to discuss it with a certain matron whose company was kept by all the prominent people of Rome. (This is a kind way of saying that she was a prostitute to the Roman leadership.) The Torah scholars needed to address the government on behalf of the Jewish people, and they sought the matron’s advice. They asked: Who will go to her? Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: I will go.
Rabbi Yehoshua and his students went to the matron. When they arrived, he removed his t’fillin, he entered, and he locked the door behind him. After he emerged from her home, he immersed in a mikveh, a ritual bath, to purify himself, and then he sat down and taught his students.
He said to them: When I removed my t’fillin, of what did you suspect me? They said to him, we said: The Rabbi must hold that sacred items may not enter a place of impurity. Therefore, it would have been inappropriate to enter the house with t’fillin.
He asked: When I locked the door, of what did you suspect me? They said to him, we said: Perhaps there is a discreet royal matter that must be discussed between the Rabbi and the matron and no one should overhear them.
Rabbi Yehoshua asked: When I immersed in the mikveh, of what did you suspect me? They said to him, we said: Perhaps a bit of spittle sprayed from her mouth onto the Rabbi’s clothes. (This is based on the notion that the legal status of the bodily fluids of a gentile transmit ritual impurity.)
Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: I swear by my service to God that it was exactly as you thought. And just as you judged me favorably, so may God judge you favorably.
A conservative rabbi friend tells a similar, albeit, contemporary story: He was studying with a prominent Orthodox rabbi who was teaching about the need to restrain oneself before rebuking another. He posed the question:
“What do you say when you see an observant Jew walking out of McDonald’s with a bag labeled ‘cheeseburger’? You assume he was getting a sandwich for a colleague, secretary, or boss and you say ‘hello.’”
My friend went on with his story, noting that a few months later, he was eating a cold salad in a non-kosher restaurant (an acceptable exception to strict kashrut for Conservative, but usually not Orthodox, Jews) when that same prominent Orthodox rabbi entered. My friend assumed that his teacher came in for a glass of water or to use the restroom. The rabbi didn’t look at what my friend was eating, and my friend didn’t assume his teacher would break kashrut. Instead, they warmly greeted each other.
In these two stories, assuming the best about the other wasn’t too difficult. Both were about prominent rabbis. Both had disciples observing them. And both were given the benefit of the doubt.
But what happens when the other isn’t a prominent member of the community or one’s teacher?
Once, a very poor man encountered a Rabbi and asked for ten gold coins to treat his sick wife. The Rabbi had no money on him, and instead gave the man a silver candlestick and told him to pawn it for ten gold coins. He also told the man not to worry, that he would redeem it from the pawnshop.
A few days later, the Rabbi entered the pawnshop and discovered that the poor man sold it for 25 gold pieces, not ten. The pawnshop owner cursed the poor man on the Rabbi’s behalf, feeling that the Rabbi had been taken advantage of. The Rabbi shook his head and said, “Nonsense. Think of how embarrassed the poor man must have been in needing 25 gold coins, not just ten.”
Recently, I was with my family at a local fair. While waiting on line to buy some corn-on-the-cob, I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt that expressed a political view the complete opposite of mine. What his shirt said and what my views are are completely irrelevant. What matters is my reaction to seeing him and his shirt. I first began to assume not nice things about the person. “How could he support …” went through my mind. “He probably hates me or worse, wants me dead,” I continued to think.
And then I stopped myself. How dare I assume these things? I was ashamed of myself then and am a bit ashamed to admit it here. I looked at him and his t-shirt once more. And then I thought, “I wonder what kind of life experiences he has had that have led him to hold the views he does? How did he grow up? Where? What did his parents teach him? What does he value in the world?”
Suddenly, I felt a rush of compassion run through me. Maybe his life was the opposite of mine – or maybe it was similar. But it didn’t matter. I searched to find what we shared – and at our core, it was our humanity. Our Rabbis teach us in Pirkei Avot, from the 3rd century, “Never judge another until you put yourself in his or her position.”
One cautionary tale on this subject comes from an unknown source. It concerns a man who was the supervisor (mashgiach) of kosher standards at a food processing plant.
He had been doing his job for quite some time without problem or incident, when one day the boss pulled him aside and told him that one of the employees had seen someone come into the kitchen to look into the pots and read the label ingredients. The mashgiach was a bit miffed. “If that person doubted my supervision,” he responded, “the correct thing to do was to come directly to me to ask his questions, not to poke around by himself, behind my back.”
Some time passed and once again the boss took the mashgiach aside to report that the employee had reported that the intruder had returned and was once again nosing around the kitchen. Now the mashgiach was indignant. “One time he comes snooping, okay. But he’s back again?” When he was told of the third visit, the mashgiach began to think some nasty thoughts. What kind of person sneaks around like that to check up on him? Why didn’t he come right out with his questions and concerns instead of ferreting around like a low-life? Why is he doing this? He’s no better than a thief! Or maybe worse! Maybe he is out to dig up something to ruin my reputation! A pox on him. And his family!
On his next visit to the factory, the boss once again took him aside and, before he could say a word, the mashgiach was fuming and spluttering about this no-good, sidewinding, less-than-a-worm of a human-being for whom rotting in Gehenom was too good a fate … “Hold on! said the boss. “We’ve solved the mystery. The person who keeps poking around the factory? He’s you! The employee who reported it is new on the job and he didn’t know you or what you do here, so he reported on this ‘suspicious’ individual.”
The boss was laughing, and he didn’t understand why the mashgiach wasn’t joining in. But what was going on in the mashgiach’s mind at that moment was a review of all the curses and nasty thoughts he had wished on this unknown person, his family, and his descendants. On himself.
Judging others favorably is a positive mitzvah. In part of the Torah known as the “Holiness Code,” which we will hear on Yom Kippur afternoon, we read: “Do not do injustice in judgment; do not favor the poor; do not honor the great. Judge your fellow human justly.”
Unfortunately, our habit to judge others harshly tends to be so ingrained that we require help to overcome it. As I stated earlier, the Talmud’s instruction to judge everyone favorably means that if you see someone doing something questionable, you are not permitted to assume that the person is doing something negative, but rather you should interpret it positively. You are obligated to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and judge favorably.
Consider, for example, someone who arrives late for a meeting. Do you think: “It’s so disrespectful of her to come late just because she can’t organize herself to be on time”? Or do you think, “Maybe she was up all night with a sick child?” Which comes to your mind first?
The Mussar, the movement devoted to Jewish ethics, calls it dan l’kaf zechut, which is defined as “giving the benefit of the doubt.” But it demands more of us than that. It means that even if we see behavior that is clearly improper, we should still try to look for mitigating factors or positive aspects that might be present – like the students did when their teacher removed his t’fillin, entered a house of prostitution, and later immersed in the mikveh.
There are, of course, limits to how we think about others. I’m not suggesting that we turn to the neo-Nazi/white supremacist who has targeted both the TBJ community and me with kindness and favorable judgment. He is so filled with hate that it would be hard to find the positive in what he says or does. But we can try to not let ugly thoughts about him take over our minds. It’s not healthy for us and won’t change him. I’d suggest that mostly we ignore him.
When appropriate, a second way to limit our tendency to negatively judge is to practice the trait of likvod, which means “to honor.” The rabbis have stressed that kavod ha’briyot, “the honor of a person,” should be of enormous concern for us. What good can possibly come from looking at another person and seeing only the flawed, incomplete, earthy creature? How much more beneficial – though difficult sometimes – to see a radiant soul?
Honor, respect, and dignity are due to each and every human being, not because of the greatness of their achievements, nor how well they have behaved, but because they are a creature of the Divine.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, who taught before the Mussar movement, explained that one should honor all people simply because they are the handiwork of God. When we so easily focused on the flaws, how much beauty we miss in the world, even the beauty of people with whom we so vehemently differ! When we develop the capacity to attune to the deeper level of the people, we accord them the honor that is their due. Yes, they are flawed. We all are. But the fact that their behavior is not perfect does not detract from the holiness that is inherent within them.
For some people, when honoring another, we encounter the root proposition of Judaism as taught by Rabbi Akiva: v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself. Is it possible to develop love, not just honor or respect or dignity? The Mussar movement says yes, by cultivating honor, respect, and dignity. They say, turn to others with honor, respect, and dignity, and the fruit of it will be love.
The practice of honor, respect, and dignity means adopting a positive evaluation of others. Doing so is often a challenge, because most of us don’t find it natural or easy to view the positive in other people.
But the Mussar continues, have faith, because when you take on honor as a practice, then little by little, your perspective will shift. We can train ourselves to see other people as souls, beautiful and bright, no matter what condition the packaging.
In Mussar, practitioners are trained to repeat the phrase, “each one is a holy soul.” This reminds me of a story from many years ago when I still lived in San Francisco. The rainy season comes in late fall or early winter, after drivers have enjoyed a dry summer. It seems that many Bay Area residents forget how to drive in the rain when the weather first turns. One particular year on the day of the first rain, my friend Jhos was cut off by several drivers and nearly hit on the Oakland Bay Bridge. Initially, his inclination was to curse them all. But instead, he repeated the phrase, b’tzelem elohim, b’tzelem elohim, reminding himself that each and every bad driver was created in the image of God and was deserving of honor, respect, and dignity, even if they also could use a refresher driver’s ed class.
As we enter this new year of 5780, may our thoughts of others be kind, lacking judgment, filled with honor, and maybe even touched by love.
Private correspondence with Rabbi Carl Perkins.
Pirkei Avot 2:5.