Judging Judiciously

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

One of the many mitzvoth in this short parshah is בצדק תפשט את עמיתך, with righteousness you shall judge your fellow. While this mitzvah (and it is indeed a positive command, not a self imposed strictness) seems to apply to judges in courts of law, it is absolutely relevant to each of us. As Rav Pam explains, we are commanded to judge others favorably, to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Ohr Doniel considers this a mitzvah that is often difficult to keep. After all, it may require us to question the veracity of what our eyes actually saw, a sight that had us jump to immediate conclusions. But we in fact saw only one piece of a larger puzzle. We cannot know all the details and background behind anyone's action. Even if you err by giving the benefit of the doubt, by putting a positive spin on your neighbor's wrong, Hashem will still judge you favorably for having observed this mitzvah, writes Rabbi Beyfus.

How many conflicts could have been avoided if we had taken the time to give the benefit of the doubt, to consider other explanations for the behavior we see as questionable? By not seeing the whole picture and jumping to erroneous conclusions, we have created challenges and strife that should have no basis and would have been avoided, teaches us Rabbi Nevenzahl. Except for a confirmed rasha/evildoer, we are commanded to judge each person favorably, the completely righteous as well as the average person, teaches us Rabbi Rivlin.

In fact, if you judged someone unfavorably and later realized you had erred, you are required to bless that person to reverse your judgment. In proof of this, we learn about Eli the High Priest, who, after mistakenly assuming Channah to be drunk as she was silently beseeching Hashem, later blessed her that her request be fulfilled. Channah conceived, as she had prayed, and gave birth to the child who grew to be the great Prophet Shmuel.

Given these parameters, we would have expected the mitzvah to say we should judge our fellow with chesed, loving kindness, rather than with righteousness. Rav Pam zt”l explains why tzedek rather than chesed is the more appropriate word. He cites for us the two examples the Gemarra uses in instructing a judge who is rendering a verdict. First, he must have absolute clarity as to the actual law, and then he must also be absolutely sure he knows all the details of this particular case. [I am reminded of a kohain who must take all personal circumstances into account before declaring someone afflicted with tzoraas, even if the lesions themselves are genuine. CKS] In judging another, each of us must have the same clarity, that there was a transgression of actual law [not a custom or stringency] and that there were no circumstances demanding this action. [Seeing someone going into a McDonald's could mean he was suffering from extreme thirst, or desperately needed a restroom; driving the car on Shabbat could be a medical emergency. CKS] It is also easy to let our own biases color our interpretation of events, similar to a judge taking bribes.

Even great people can jump to erroneous conclusions and bring about terrible consequences. Rabbi Nevenzahl interprets the entire history of Yosef and his brothers in this light. The brothers had already formed a negative opinion of Yosef, fearing he would be the favored son who would cause the other brothers to be disinherited, as had happened with Avraham's sons and with Yitzchak's sons. Therefore, when Yosef spoke to their father, the Torah terminology does not testify to his speaking loshon horo, but rather to his bringing information to Yaakov for Yaakov to clarify. Given their bias, the brothers misjudged Yosef, both here and with Yosef's dreams. This total misunderstanding was the catalyst for the sale of Yosef and the later descent of Bnei Yisroel to Egypt. This bias was so strong that when years later they encountered Yosef as the prime minister of Egypt, they could not imagine this was Yosef in spite of the compounding "coincidences" to this fact. Even when the brothers realized they had sinned with Yosef, they repented only for not accepting Yosef's cries as signs of Yosef's teshuvah rather than repenting for having misjudged Yosef completely. Even Yosef himself was guilty of misjudging his brothers. And certainly, all of us are sometimes guilty of misjudging the actions and situations of others.

Our job is to see the positive qualities in others rather than their negative characteristics, to look for extenuating circumstances that might explain unusual or generally unacceptable behavior, writes Rabbi Wolbe zt”l. Rabbi Zvi M. Zilverberg attests that since Adam and Chavah ate of the forbidden fruit, the knowledge of good and evil, the line between right and wrong, became blurred and intermixed so that it often became difficult to differentiate between the two. Now we can see someone doing good, and we may automatically attribute some ulterior motive. But we don't as often give the benefit of the doubt and see a positive explanation when we observe something negative. The more we look for the goodness, the more we are likely to find goodness. In this respect Rabbi Reiss gives us some excellent advice. Always looking for the negative will keep you tense and suspicious. [We've all heard the term farbissen, an embittered soul. CKS] If you want to be happy, look for the good in others, in the world, and ultimately in yourself.

In this context Rabbi Zilverberg gives us a beautiful interpretation of Psalm 34:13: "Who is the Man who desires life? [The one who] loves days so that he will see goodness. [Then] he will restrain his tongue from speaking evil..." Judging for the good brings good to the world and awakens the goodness in others. It is the positive energy that will bring Moshiach.

Judging the world with a positive eye is not chesed, but tzedek, righteousness.

To judge a person favorably is equally important when eulogizing someone. Rabbi Pam zt”l notes that one is permitted to slightly embellish the good the person has done in his life. This is not lying, but rather publicizing good that many people did not know or did not understand why the person acted as he did. This is not chesed, but the right thing to do. And this certainly applies when speaking of the living as well.

While it seems that our verse gives rise to two contradictory laws, Rav S. R. Hirsch zt”l clarifies that each mitzvah refers to a different situation. While in court, a judge must rule according to strict judgment; in societal interactions one must always judge with the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because the courts must be concerned with the absolute rule of law whereas society must be primarily interested in character development. Therefore, society must take the full person and his circumstances into account. As Rabbi Friedlander zt”l, quoting the Sefas Emes zt”l expounds, the mishneh that says, " Judge את כל האדם/the entire person with the benefit of the doubt." In society, this constitutes righteousness.

Sometimes trying to find a positive interpretation of events may be elusive, but in Letitcha Elyon, Rabbi Yoffe zt”l encourages us to keep searching for the good, just as we would keep searching for an expensive item we may have lost.

The person you are judging is עמיתך, is someone with you, with whom you have a relationship, and therefore your judging them favorably is a result of your loving them, writes the Ohr Doniel.

Rav Pam zt”l brings a completely different perspective to our discussion. When we judge someone else, writes Rav Pam zt”l, we are also rendering judgment on ourselves, albeit we are unaware of it. When we render a negative judgment against our fellow, we are creating prosecutors in Heaven who then stand and judge us with the same harshness we judged others. We are then likely to bring about our own punishment, as King David did in the theoretical situation the Prophet Nathan brought before him that was actually a parable for David's own actions in obtaining Bathsheba. The multiple tragedies that later rained down on King David were, at least to some extent, the result of the judgment he himself rendered in the theoretical judgment.

In contrast, when we give others the benefit of the doubt, we are creating defenses for ourselves in the Heavenly court.

Being negatively judgmental of others usually stems from a sense of arrogance, of believing that I know it all. To give others the benefit of the doubt, I must shrink my ego, confessing that I may not know it all. That makes room for others and is the essence of chesed.

Rebbetzin Smiles concluded with an amazing story that illustrated our points. Even when we believe the facts to be irrefutable, we may be mistaken. During the Holocaust, a father was convinced that the Jewish guard had shot his son on the orders of the Nazi guards. Only many years later did he find out that the Jew had actually killed the Nazis hidden and adopted this son, raising him as his own.

We are never aware of all the facts in any situation. The only way we can truly judge another is by acknowledging that our knowledge is probably flawed and incomplete. Therefore, if we are to give a truly righteous judgment, we must always give the benefit of the doubt to others. We pray that others, and especially Hakodosh Boruch Hu, will then give us the benefit of the doubt in all we do.

Mazel tov to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Smiles on the birth of a granddaughter, Ahuva Chaya, born to their children Chana and Yehoshua Galandauer.