We were taking a walk to the park on Shabbos afternoon. While we were waiting to cross the relatively busy street, we saw, on the side street across from us, a car waiting for traffic to clear. The car didn’t have the turn signal on.
“I can’t tell if she’s turning left or right,” my husband commented.
“See, that’s why it’s so important to use your turn signal,” I pronounced sanctimoniously. I’m always pouncing on drivers who neglect to use the ever-so-important signal. After we crossed, we watched as the car drove straight. Straight! She pulled right into the driveway that we had been standing in as we waited to cross the street.
So she wasn’t in the wrong at all. In fact, we were, for assuming that she wasn’t obeying the traffic laws.
In Pirkei Avos 1:6 we are told
. . . Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: Accept a teacher upon yourself; acquire a friend for yourself, and judge everyone favorably.
If we see someone doing something which might be fishy, for instance, if someone who is known to keep kosher walks into a McDonald’s, we are obligated to give that person the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they need to use the restroom, and this was the only one nearby, or the closest one, etc. Or someone who is usually cordial responds to your greeting in a curt manner. They may be having a stressful day, or maybe they just received bad news and are distracted.
There was a tutor who kept falling asleep during her sessions, which seemed quite rude, not to mention unprofessional. It wasn’t until several months later when her pregnancy began to show that we understood why she was having such a difficult time staying awake!
Giving the benefit of the doubt is something that most people do for themselves on a regular basis. Grumpy at the cashier in the grocery store? Well, you know that you only got a little sleep, and the baby was yelling the entire car ride over, and you couldn’t find a couple of items in this store so now you have to go to another store, so it’s okay if you’re not overly pleasant to the cashier. See? It’s easy to do it for ourselves. This mitzvah simply expects us to extend the same courtesy to others.
In the book, The Other Side of the Story there are some phenomenal examples of situation where people are behaving in ways that seem inexcusable. Who could think of a plausible reason for such behavior? Well, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. It’s really worth a read.
An average person, who is neither particularly pious nor sinful (or at least is not known to you to be sinful in the matter under question), must be given the benefit of the doubt only in situations in which there is reasonable room for doubt. If an act could go either way, judge him favorably. If, however, an act leaves little room for doubt — and the person is not exactly known for his saintliness — one need not find some favorable interpretation to his act.
The second type of person is one known to be righteous. Maimonides writes that we must view him or her favorably even if the circumstances do not warrant it, even in the case where his behavior appears sinful. We should bend over to view such a person favorably. Even if he clearly did sin, the Talmud writes that one should assume he reconsidered and repented his deed by the morrow
The final category of person is one known to be wicked . . . Regarding such a person, there is no obligation whatsoever to judge him favorably. He is not “your fellow” as referred to in the verse. In fact, we must often bend over the other way in condemning his actions.
An added bonus to this mitzvah is taught to us in the Talmud:
“Anyone who judges others favorably will be judged favorably in Heaven.” This follows the general principle that G-d rewards and punishes us “measure for measure.” If we are patient and understanding with others, G-d will act in the same manner towards us. If not, G-d will get his cues, so to speak, from our own behavior.
Get that? When we judge others favorably, we are ensuring ourselves a more positive judgment on our own actions. If we work on being more charitable and understanding towards our fellow, also imperfect, man (or woman), then we are setting the standards of our own personal judgment system. However, if we are overly exacting and critical of others, we are sending the message that this is how we should be judged. Scary.
It’s really the cultivation of a positive attitude. Most people believe that they are generally good. So when mistakes are made, they can be overlooked, because it’s normal and human to make mistakes. Mistakes do not dictate the goodness of a person. This positive attitude can be extended to those around us. Just like we believe that we are fundamentally good, so does the person who just cut you off in traffic. Maybe they’re rushing to get to the hospital because their wife is in labor. It’s a possibility.
This business of judging favorably is particularly useful in a marriage, and in family life in general. It makes good sense to give our spouse, or our children, the benefit of the doubt. Wouldn’t we want them to do the same for us (I know I would)?