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  The Benefit of the Doubt from
The Gift of Speech
Refining the way we speak: An inspiring blend of stories, laws, and insights.

By Rabbi Shimon Finkelman 


Other Available Chapters
Playing with Fire 


The Benefit of the Doubt

I have a friend who happens to be a terrific speaker. Wherever he goes, shuls, schools and organizations ask him to address their members.

It happened once that my friend was asked to deliver a shiur (lecture) on the weekly parashah in a local shul. The members of that shul are known to be very punctual and my friend was told that the shiur was to be begin at 8:00 sharp.

But at 8:00 on the appointed evening, my friend was nowhere to be seen. By 8:10, he still had not arrived. A large crowd was in attendance and was getting restless. Some people were upset. What was the matter with this speaker? How could he be so inconsiderate? Didn’t he realize that there were many people who had rushed their Shabbos meal so that they would be on time to hear him speak? Was their time any less valuable that his time?

The organizer of the shiur approached the rav of the shul and asked that he ascend the podium and deliver a shiur in place of the missing lecturer. The rav obliged and was about to begin speaking when suddenly the door of the shul opened and my friend entered -- looking tense and worn out. Entering together with him was a middle-aged man who had obvious difficulty walking.

The organizer hurried over. “Rabbi, where have you been? We were about to start without you!”

My friend explained: “Believe me, it is not my habit to come late to a speaking engagement. I hurried my meal and left myself twenty-five minutes for the fifteen-minute walk to your shul.

“Did you notice the middle-aged man who came in with me? He is my guest for Shabbos. He has great difficulty walking and I was sure that he would not want to make the long walk to hear me speak tonight. But when I mentioned the shiur, he insisted on coming along! I knew that this would make the walk take at least twice as long, but I had no choice. He would have felt terrible had I told him that he could not accompany me.”

Quite often, lashon hara results from our failure to judge a fellow Jew favorably. It is a positive commandment to give a person the benefit of the doubt in a situation where his actions can be interpreted either positively or negatively. As the Torah states, Judge your fellow with righteousness which means Judge your friend toward the scale of merit, that is, give him the benefit of the doubt.

In the above true story, those assembled in shul were required by the Torah to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt as the minutes ticked by and he did not appear. Those who spoke critically of him were guilty of speaking lashon hara and also transgressed the requirement to give the benefit of the doubt.

A Special Worker

Our Sages relate the following amazing story:

A Jew from Upper Galilee in northern Israel hired himself out for three years to a landowner in the south. At the end of the three years, the day before Yom Kippur, the worker asked for his wages so that he could return home and feed his family.

His employer responded: “I have no money.”

“Then pay me with fruit,” said the worker.

“I have none,” came the reply.

“Pay me with land.”

“I have none.”

“Pay me with livestock.”

“I have none.”

“Pay me with pillows and blankets.”

“I have none.”

The worker slung his pack over his shoulder and headed home, deeply disappointed.

When Succos ended, the landowner appeared at his worker’s door with full payment for the three years of work, along with three donkeys laden with food, drink and delicacies. The food was brought inside and the two enjoyed a hearty meal together.

When the meal was over and the worker had received his money, the landowner asked him, “When you asked for your earnings and I replied that I had no money, what did you think?”

The worker replied, “I thought that perhaps a deal that you could not pass up had come along and you had used all your cash for that.”

“And when I said that I had no land?”

“I thought that perhaps all your land had been leased to others.”

“And when I said that I had no fruit?”

“I thought that perhaps you had not had an opportunity to separate terumos and maasros from your fruits.”

“And when I said that I had no pillows and blankets?”

“I thought that perhaps you had dedicated all your possessions to the Beis HaMikdash.

The landowner exclaimed, “I make an oath that that is exactly what happened! ... Just as you judged me favorably, so too should Hashem judge you favorably.”

Who was this wonderful worker and who was his employer? Our Sages say that the worker was Rabbi Akiva and his employer was Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos. Rabbi Akiva began to study Torah at age forty; this story took place when he was still ignorant of Torah knowledge. As the Chasam Sofer points out, we see from this story that even before he began to study Torah, Rabbi Akiva possessed exceptional midos. No doubt, Rabbi Akiva’s sterling character had a lot to do with his becoming the greatest Torah sage of his generation and one of the greatest of all time. Good character is the foundation upon which one can grow in Torah. In Pirkei Avos, the Sages list forty-eight qualities which one needs to make Torah a part of his being. In the words of R’ Aharon Kotler, “To attempt to acquire Torah without these qualities ...accomplishes nothing.”

Surprise

As we saw in the above story, judging others favorably is not always easy. Many would have found it hard to believe that the landowner, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, had actually used up his available cash, leased all his property, dedicated his possessions to the Beis HaMikdash and been unable to separate terumos and maasros from his fruits and vegetables. But that is exactly what had happened and his worker, Akiva ben Yosef, passed a great test in accepting his claims as truth.

We should always bear in mind that in the course of life, the strangest and most unlikely things can sometimes happen.

In Yeshivah Darchei Torah, an eighth grade student once accused his classmate of stealing his snack. Circumstances seemed to indicate that the accusation was valid -- until someone noticed a squirrel with the bag of snack hanging from its mouth.

Rabbi Avraham Pam related a true story which happened in a first grade class. A child was missing a toy which he had brought to school that day. The next day, another boy in the class returned the toy, claiming that he had been surprised to find it in his knapsack! This boy adamantly insisted that he had not stolen the toy and that he had no idea how it had found its way into his knapsack -- but of course, no one believed him. How, everyone wondered, could the toy have ended up in his knapsack if he had not stolen it?

A long time passed before the truth was discovered. A third boy had stolen the toy. As soon as he came home from school, he regretted what he had done, but he was too ashamed to admit his guilt. He decided to return the toy without having to face the rebbi or the toy’s owner. The next day, when he was sure that no one was looking, he went over to a knapsack lying in a corner of the room and stuffed the toy into it. When the owner of that knapsack returned the toy to its owner, he was fulfilling the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah (returning a lost object), while everyone was accusing him of being a thief.

A Case in Point

As we will learn in detail in forthcoming chapters, the Torah forbids us to listen to lashon hara and to accept it as fact. Therefore, if someone tells you of an incident which, according to his interpretation, casts someone in a bad light, it is forbidden to believe his interpretation.

The Chofetz Chaim illustrates this law with the following case:

Reuven is walking down the street when he meets Shimon, who is extremely upset. Shimon has just been declared the loser in a din Torah (court case) against Levi. Shimon tells the details of the case to Reuven and says, “Did you ever hear something so ridiculous in all your life? It is obvious that I should have won! These dayanim (judges) don’t know what they’re doing! I’m sure that in any other beis din (Jewish court) I would have won.”

Reuven must tell himself that no matter how convincing Shimon may sound, he is wrong. Dayanim are fair, responsible Torah scholars and are surely qualified to judge the cases which are presented to them. It is Shimon’s personal interests which are blinding him from seeing the truth. Reuven should attempt to convince Shimon of this. He should also gently reprimand Shimon for speaking disrespectfully of talmidei chachamim.

If Reuven agrees with Shimon and sympathizes with his cause, then he is guilty of accepting lashon hara and of not giving the judges the benefit of the doubt. In this case, the sin is particularly severe since the judges are talmidei chachamim.

Measure for Measure

At the conclusion of the story involving Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, Rabbi Eliezer told his worker, “Just as you judged me favorably, so too should Hashem judge you favorably.” The Talmud actually introduces this story with the statement: “Whoever judges others favorably will be judged favorably [by Heaven].”

What does the Talmud mean by saying that Hashem will judge us favorably? Certainly it does not mean that Hashem will ignore our sins.

It means that in the merit of our having judged others generously, Hashem will judge us with an abundance of mercy. If our mitzvos are less than perfect or if we are guilty of wrongdoing, Hashem will take into account any possible factor in our favor. But if we fail to give others the benefit of the doubt and instead we choose to judge them strictly, then in Heaven, we will be judged accordingly.

On the other hand, R’ Avraham Pam points out that when a person does not give others the benefit of the doubt, he actually gives Satan power to testify against them in Heaven. When one Jew says of another, “He did something terrible -- a real disgrace. He should not be allowed to get away with it...” he is like a prosecutor against the person and his words have a powerful impact in Heaven.

The Chofetz Chaim observed: No G-d-fearing Jew would dream of voluntarily offering incriminating information before the authorities about another Jew. A person who would do such a thing would be scorned and despised by everyone. How, then, can a person “inform” against his fellow Jew before the Heavenly Court by judging him critically and speaking badly of him?

Giving others the benefit of the doubt is good for others and good for ourselves. And it is a crucial midah for anyone who seeks to acquire the precious quality of shemiras halashon.

 
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