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Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777-2017

“Judging Others Favorably”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, has 38 negative and 13 positive mitzvot and ranks fifth in the number of mitzvot that are contained in a single parasha. Parashat Kedoshim also contains many of the Torah’s most exalted ethical and moral laws and principles.

Of the many acclaimed ethical and moral laws, one of the most inspiring verses is found in Leviticus 19:15, which reads, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט,  לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל, וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל,  בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ , You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow.

More than 3,300 years ago, the Torah warned that a judge must not be partial to a poor man in judgment. Despite the natural tendency to show overwhelming sympathy for the poor and helpless, justice must not be compromised when the poor man is in the wrong.

The Sifra even states that a judge must not say to himself, “This man is rich and well-connected; how can I put him to shame by deciding against him?”

When sitting in judgment, a judge may not be prejudiced in favor of the poor or fear offending the wealthy or the great. To this end, the Sifra states that one litigant is not permitted to state his case at length while the other is required to cut it short. If one of the litigants is allowed to sit, the other may not be kept standing. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7a) states that a judge should feel as though a sword is always suspended above his head throughout the time he sits in judgment. This is the literal meaning בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ , with righteousness you shall judge your fellow. Judgment must be equitable and fair, without any compromise.

Rashi citing the Talmud in Shavuot 30a, states that in addition to the literal meaning, the verse also teaches that one must always give others the benefit of the doubt. This was later famously codified in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers (1:6), in the name of Joshua the son of Perachia, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת , Make certain to judge everyone favorably, always giving them the benefit of the doubt.

This concept brings to mind an old Indian saying that always made me smile, “Don’t judge a fellow Indian until you have walked a mile in his/her moccasins!”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch  points out, that in judgment, a deliberating judge may consider outside factors, but the final judgment must be rendered only on the basis of pure justice. This is in stark contrast to the practice in the social sphere where people are encouraged to judge their neighbors and give them the benefit of the doubt, even though, by the strict letter of the law, they may not deserve it.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, refused to accept calumny, or hear anything negative about a fellow Jew under any circumstances.

A story is told that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was once walking in Berditchev on Shabbat, and saw a young man smoking. Approaching the young man he said, “Young man, obviously you have forgotten that it is Shabbat!” The young man rudely responded, “Rabbi, of course I know that it’s Shabbat!” Desperate to find some justification for the young man, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said, “Then perhaps you have forgotten that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” The young man snapped back, “Of course I know, Rabbi, that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” Even more desperate, the rabbi said, “Perhaps you are sick and the doctor has prescribed that you must smoke on Shabbat!?” The young man said, “Look, Rabbi, I know it’s Shabbat, and I know it’s forbidden to smoke on Shabbat, and no doctor has prescribed that I need to smoke on Shabbat!” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak turned his eyes toward heaven and plaintively said, “Look how wondrous are Your people, Israel, O’ G-d, they might openly defy You and smoke on Shabbat, but they will never utter a false word from their mouths!”

Although Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day has passed, a well-known story is told of the heroic efforts of Rabbi Eliezer Silver, who, after liberation, visited the concentration camps’ inmates in an effort to help and comfort them, and to organize for them a semblance of Jewish life. One Jew whom he encountered refused all the rabbi’s pleas to join any of the prayer services. “I don’t want to be identified as a Jew. I don’t want a minyan or any prayer service, absolutely nothing!” He was angry, not only at G-d, but at Jews in general.

In an effort to comfort the bitter survivor, Rabbi Silver asked, “But all the Jews who survived suffered like you did. Why are you angrier than the others?”

The anguished Jew related to the rabbi that when they rounded up the Jews in the camps, there was one Jew who succeeded in secreting in a siddur, prayer book. He let it be known that those prisoners who wanted to clandestinely pray with his siddur, could pray for a half hour, in return for half their daily ration of bread. Prayer for a full hour could be arranged in return for a full ration of bread. Because of his business, said the survivor, “He ate so much that he eventually became ill and died.”

The angry Jew asked, “How could G-d allow such a corrupt Jew to sell prayers in return for bread from people who were starving. I don’t want to be part of these people; I don’t want to have anything to do with them!”

Rabbi Silver responded, “Why do you insist on looking at this one corrupt, foolish and desperate Jew, who sold the prayers for food? Why don’t you focus rather on all those Jews who were prepared to give up their ration of food in those dire circumstances, in order to have a chance to pray for half an hour or an hour from a prayer book? Why do you look only at the negative and not see all the positive?”

Unfortunately, it is sadly true that many of us, too frequently, look at the negative rather than focus on the positive.

It may have been the Kotzker Rebbe who was once asked about Jews who pray so quickly that they can barely get the words out of their mouths. The Rebbe pointed out that there are some Jews who feel they have to dwell on every single word in prayer, and say them with the proper awareness and respect. There are other Jews, however, who love G-d so much, they cannot wait to get the words out of their mouths, and that is why they pray so quickly.

Whether that is true or not, the idea of giving every individual the benefit of the doubt is not only appropriate, it actually reflects the Jewish tradition of showing heartfelt compassion, whenever possible.

Our sages often point out that when our time comes to be judged in the World to Come, we hope that we too will be judged with that extra measure of compassion by the Al-mighty tribunal and by the Al-mighty Himself.

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, May 1st) is observed this year on the 6th of Iyar, Monday evening, May 1st, and all day Tuesday, May 2nd.