Since Yom Kippur is coming up I suppose it’s only natural to become more introspective. One mitzvah that I’ve often struggled with is being dan l’chaf zechus (the obligation to judge someone favorably). This is a mitzvah that seems obvious, but is a lot harder to keep in actual practice. It’s funny how we can clearly see injustice when we are the ones being judged unfavorably, but we can’t see the injustice when we are the condemning arbiter.
Thinking about this today, I came up with a useful analogy for myself. I worked for many years as a researcher, helping to provide guidance and concrete examples for a group of writers who wrote reports on best business practices. In my experience, there were two types of writers.
The first type of writer would come to me with a proposed hypothesis, and would ask me to do a search to see if the literature supported their conclusion. Were there numerous articles in respected business publications touting the proposed best practice? Were there examples of companies who were engaged in the practice? Were there professional organizations devoted to the practice? Were there educational and/or certification opportunities to train people in the practice? Basically, was there any proof out there that this actually was a best business practice. If the answer was yes, great! If the answer was no, than these types of writers were flexible about changing their hypothesis and going in a different direction. They weren’t afraid to be wrong.
The second type of writer would come to me, not so much with a proposed hypothesis, but with a foregone conclusion. They had most likely been in on a meeting with internal experts (consultants who acted as their advisors) and an innovative best practice had come up in conversation. Perhaps it was a concept that currently had more buzz in theory than in actual practice, but the experts may have spoken about it with authority, and therefore, the writer was certain that there would be enough information about it to make it the focus of their report. They had already plotted out the report in their mind and just needed me to fill in the blanks of their outline. When I came up empty, they felt certain I hadn’t checked thoroughly enough, or that surely a wealth of information existed underneath some unturned magical rock. The reality was that consultants often engaged in “next practice” thinking, as they should. They often predicted the next best thing, and sometimes they were right in the moment, sometimes they turned out to be right a year or so later, and other times they were wrong – but as executives tend to do – they always presented their theories as fact. It was up to me and the other fact finders to determine the truth. However, even after many fruitless attempts, it was still hard for these writers to let go of their original hypothesis and accept that they needed to change their focus. Sometimes they never accepted it, taking the information they were given and twisting it into a poorly supported paper in defense of their original concept.
I have often been like that second group of writers when it comes to judging others favorably, ultimately to my own detriment, and I think there are others like me who struggle with the same thing. Meaning, we often form theories about people and circumstances, and instead of being open to other interpretations of events, we form a (negative) hypothesis and run with it. Even if the evidence before us can be taken more than one way, or doesn’t support our theory at all, we choose to twist our findings into whatever supports our foregone conclusion. Dan l’chaf zechus is even harder to achieve in our personal interactions, because there is a greater emotional component involved than in my work example.
I can think of a stupid situation where I got “in my feelings” (really I was the only stupid thing about the situation) and made a faulty judgement that snowballed into me judging someone unfavorably. Here were the stages of judgment –
A family we had been privileged to share many Shabbos and Yom Tov meals with cancelled coming over to our house during Pesach because they remembered they don’t eat out over Pesach.
Did I –
Accept the cancellation graciously and take it at face value
Determine that there was an underlying reason for the cancellation such as – They Don’t Trust Our Kashrut Dammit!
With the kernel of kashrut rejection in the back of my mind, I was sensitive to any signs that my hypothesis was correct. It didn’t take very long to confirm my theory, as we invited the family to come for a Shabbos meal after Pesach and they accepted. HOWEVER – they insisted on bringing over extra food that would have “gone to waste otherwise,” and ended up bringing over almost an entire meal.
Did I –
Appreciate the generosity of our guests and laugh over the large quantity of food we now had between my efforts and theirs
Take their action as a further sign that they did not trust our kashrut and felt the need to bring their own food
Each step of the way I could have gone with either the first or second option, and I chose the second. In fact, had I gone with the first option at the beginning, there would have been no need for a second step looking for confirming evidence against my friends. I stubbornly stuck to my original hypothesis and saw future interactions through those lenses of judgement. Fortunately, I kept my suspicions to myself, and over a short amount of time (actually during the meal in question where all ate heartily from every dish regardless of origin) realized how foolish I had been. As I said earlier, this was a rather stupid (read small) situation, but faulty judgements about bigger and more important issues are made this way all the time.
During this time of judgement for the Jewish people, we shouldn’t be afraid to be wrong about our own conclusions against others. It’s ok to change our hypothesis after reexamining the facts, even if it means letting go of a long held theory. Just as we must strive to be flexible and favorable with our judgement towards others, may our Creator show us that same flexibility and mercy in return.