Rabbi Freedman Yom Kippur Sermon: Judging Others

A story from the Talmud (Shabbat 127b):

There once was a worker who had just completed a very large project for a certain homeowner. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the worker said to the homeowner, “Give me my wages, so I may go and feed my family.”

The homeowner said, “I have no money.” The worker then asked for the wages in the form of land. The homeowner said, “I have none.” Animals? None. Cushions and blankets? None. Exhausted, the worker left empty handed. 

After the festival of Sukkot, the homeowner took the worker’s wages in hand, along with a burden of food and gifts that required three donkeys and went to the worker’s home. After they ate and conversed, the homeowner paid the worker. The homeowner then asked the worker, “When I said that I had no money, weren’t you suspicious that I was trying to avoid paying you?” 

The worker answered, “I thought that perhaps the opportunity to purchase merchandise inexpensively presented itself, and you purchased it with the money that you owed me, and therefore you had no money available.”

The homeowner then asked, “And when I said that I have no land, weren’t you suspicious?” The worker answered, “I thought that perhaps the land is leased to others, and you cannot take the land from the lessees.” Animals? Perhaps the animals are hired to others. Cushions or blankets? Perhaps all your property was consecrated to Heaven and therefore you had nothing available at the moment. 

The homeowner then said to the worker: I swear that is the truth. I had no money available at the time because I vowed and consecrated all my property to the Temple. And when I came to the Sages, they dissolved all my vows and I immediately came here. 

As the homeowner departed, he left the worker with this blessing, “As you judged favorably, so may God judge you favorably.”

In this season of judgment, when we symbolically stand before God, our tradition reminds us to assume the best. We pray that God’s attribute of mercy will outway the attribute of strict judgment and we pray that our mercy will prevail over our own strict judgment. While the worker in our story takes this to an extreme, our sacred texts repeatedly remind us to give others the benefit of the doubt: In Pirkei Avot we read, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached their place…” and, “judge all people with the scale weighted in their favor.” 

This afternoon, we will read from Leviticus 19, The Holiness Code, which includes our most important moral and ethical guidelines, such as the “Golden Rule”: V’ahavta l’rei’echa camocha/Love your neighbor as yourself.

This commandment is the foundation for judging others favorably. Love your neighbor is about empathy and seeking to see ourselves in the other person. We want to be given the benefit of the doubt, right? We want to be shown mercy, in this hour when our lives are metaphorically in the balance? When we see ourselves in another person, we not only cut them some slack, but we also begin our own cheshbon hanefesh/accounting of our soul.

The Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the chassidic movement) taught, “The world is a mirror; the faults you see in others are your own.” Or to put it in more contemporary language:

It’s me, hi

I’m the problem, it’s me

At teatime, everybody agrees

I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror

It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero”

(Taylor Swift, “Anti-Hero”)

(I like Taylor’s version more). The Baal Shem Tov and Taylor Swift are saying essentially the same thing: the first step of teshuva is admitting that the faults we see in others may actually be our own. It can be difficult to see our own shortcomings, but it is essential if we want to grow as individuals.

When we judge others, we are often projecting our own insecurities and fears onto them. We may see in them the things that we dislike about ourselves, but are afraid to admit. When we see something we dislike in another person, it is an opportunity to learn more about ourselves. We can ask ourselves: “Why does this bother me so much? Is it because I have a similar flaw that I am trying to hide from myself?”

Maybe the worker had issues with paying bills as well and had the empathy to not immediately assume the worst of the homeowner. Generally, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, but rarely extend that same level of consideration to others.

A car just cut me off? I immediately assume this person is a selfish, unthoughtful jerk who thinks that they are more important than everyone else on the road. 

A friend didn’t text me back? I immediately assume they are not responding because they are offended by something I said. My spouse didn’t do the dishes after they said they would. I immediately assume they are lazy and not sharing in the household responsibilities. 

When we fail to look in the mirror, when we fail to see our own faults in others, when we assume the best of ourselves but the worst of others, we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves. To love my neighbor as myself I need to cut my neighbor some slack like I do for myself.

Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, in a keynote address on “The Art of Civil Discourse”, talks about the concept of motive asymmetry, “the phenomenon of assuming that your ideology, your position, is based in love, but your opponents’ ideology is based in hate.” So often, we paint ourselves as the “hero” and others as the “villain,” assuming their motives are nefarious while ours are pure and just. 

But we can never fully know what another person is thinking or feeling. To truly love your neighbor and disavow motive asymmetry requires humility. It requires us to begin from a position of curiosity rather than certainty. Loving your neighbor means having the humility to stand in another person’s shoes. Loving your neighbor is believing that there is another perspective unknown to us. 

What would happen if we all could be a little more like the worker in the Talmud story; giving others the same benefit of the doubt that we give ourselves? What would we need to do in order to reach this level of judging positively? If we could stop, take a moment of humility, and assume others are trying their best and bringing the same positive intentions as us, we might be able to look in the mirror and see the situation differently.

A car just cut me off? Assume the best; they didn’t notice me in their blind spot. And then look in the mirror; “I’ve probably done that a bunch before, maybe I should be more mindful when I drive (which is really hard with screaming children in the backseat).”

A friend didn’t text me back? Assume the best; they have a lot going on right now. Look in the mirror; “I’ve definitely forgotten to get back to people and it doesn’t feel great. I want to be more mindful this year when others reach out to me.”

My spouse didn’t do the dishes after they said they would. Assume the best; they must have forgotten or just been exhausted after spending hours putting the kids to bed. Look in the mirror; “I’m the worst at household chores and never get them done why I say I will. I need to make sure I am doing my share as well.”

Imagine if both partners in a relationship assumed that they needed to bring a little more support than they did yesterday? When we lead with humility, we realize that we can’t be perfect in our assessments of others, so we might as well be generous. It’s a more positive way to live; to not walk around huffing at people all the time letting their mistakes bring us down. And then we go a step further and look in that mirror and acknowledge that the faults we see in others may be our own; only then can we begin to grow. Only then can we break free of motive asymmetry. Only then can we love our neighbor as ourselves. 

As with most Jewish teachings, we also need balance in our approach to judging others. The 11th century sage, Maimonides, writes that “judge every person favorably” only applies to those who we know to be righteous or to people whose character is unknown to us. If, however, we know that someone is wicked, then Maimonides gives us permission to protect ourselves.

In the case of the abuser, we do not need to assume the best. Yes, there is always room for teshuva in Judaism, but our tradition makes clear that we do not need to search for the good in someone who intentionally and repeatedly hurts us. In that case, it’s the abuser’s responsibility to right the wrongs.

Shortly after the start of the #MeToo movement, in response to society repeatedly insisting that abusers who have contributed to society get a pass, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote:

“Society can’t make the determination about when a perpetrator has done sufficient t’shuvah, and the people who stand to earn money from enabling their “redemption” can’t make that determination, either. No matter what, we don’t need to reward men who have done harm with more opportunities for wealth, prestige, power and celebrity. Part of repenting is accepting the consequences of your actions; in this case, those consequences might come from the criminal justice system or from professional censure.”

We do not need to give them the benefit of the doubt; they have lost that privilege as a consequence of their actions.

We reserve that generosity of spirit for others. For someone who hasn’t yet proven themselves, or the people in our lives that are closest to us; those who have shown us their righteous character… but… really get on our nerves sometimes with their faults, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume the best, and judge them favorably. 

When we shift our attention towards their strengths and away from their faults, they will also focus on their strengths. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says, “Focus on the good… it is not incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.” 

We spend most of this season of introspection focusing on mistakes. Rabbi Nachman reminds us, we also need to search for the good in others and ourselves. 

The Hebrew phrase for gratitude, hakarat hatov, literally means to to recognize the good; to see the best in someone or in a situation; to assume the best. 

When we take time to cultivate gratitude for our loved ones, tell them what we love and appreciate about them, we cultivate those same qualities in ourselves. A mirror reflects both the good and bad. Just as we see the faults in others because they are often our own, when we focus on the good in others, we find the good in ourselves.

Stare into the mirror

Love your neighbor as yourself

Judge them favorably

On this Day of Judgement, and throughout our lives…

As you judged favorably, so may God judge you favorably.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah/May We Be Sealed for Good in the Book of Life