Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: V’zos HaBracha
Rejoice in the Book
And this is the blessing, wherewith Moses, the man of G-d, blessed the Children of Israel before his death (Deuteronomy 33:1).
Why is Moses called “the man of God” in this verse? The Midrash answers that, “Moses was not called ‘the man of God’ until he spoke in defense of the Jewish people.” Moses pointed out the loyalty of the Jewish people to God in verses 33:3-4 – that the Jewish people cleave to the Almighty even in times of adversity and are loyal to the teachings of the Torah by transmitting them to their children. Finally, the Midrash makes a bold claim: “Whoever speaks out in defense of the Jewish people is elevated.”
Anyone can find fault with others but it takes someone special to find and concentrate on the good in others. Two thousand years ago the following statement appeared in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages).
Yehoshua ben Perachia said: Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably. (Pirkei Avot 1:6)
How is the final statement (“judge every person favorably”) related to the first two statements? Only one who can overlook a friend’s (or even teacher’s) faults while still be able to learn from his or her positive traits will be able to develop and sustain positive relationships. Humans are mortal and consequently inherently flawed. Therefore, patience and compassion-and sometimes outright mercy-are prerequisites to allow any meaningful relationship to endure.
The principle of judging others favorably is derived from a verse in Leviticus (19:15): In righteousness shall you judge your fellow. Although, in context, the verse is addressing judges, the Talmud (Shavuot 30a) uses it for an additional teaching; it is a general directive to us all that we “judge” our fellows favorably. As much as we try to be non-judgmental, we are constantly judging our friends, relatives, coworkers, and most others who come into our lives. The same way a judge must be fair, so too we must be on guard to judge others favorably. Most of us don’t hang around with convicted felons or members or drug cartels but we sometimes draw conclusions that serve as catalysts to either distance, shun, or be cold to someone simply because we did not give him or her the benefit of the doubt.
We are in the midst of the festival of Sukkot, a time of rejoicing. Are you most happy when you criticize and harbor resentment or when you worked to defeat your (negative) default nature by allowing yourself to overlook a friend or relative’s character defect? Bitter people who are mad at everyone are never happy, whereas the person who worked to ‘sweeten’ his or her negative nature reaps the benefits of a calmer and joyful life. Such a person finds it easy to find and keep friends, but it doesn’t just happen. How does one get there; how does (s)he work on it?
The answer is to realize that the ability overlook someone’s flaws is an attitude. When we judge others, we are setting our own personal justice system. Every time I find faults in others and criticize them, I send a message to myself that I am the type of person who focuses on one’s deficiencies. One can’t come out of this mindset without understanding this dynamic, but from a Jewish perspective there’s something far more harmful happening. I am sending a message to G-d. Shortcomings should be noticed and highlighted; there is no room for tolerance and understanding and G-d judges us as we judge others. In essence, we create the justice system by which the Almighty views us. If we see only the bad in others, we bring upon ourselves the very judgment which we, in our minds, visit upon others daily. However, when we view others favorably, we send an entirely different message to G-d.
Simchat Torah, the concluding festival of the holiday season that began on Rosh HaShanah, is only days away. We rejoice over the fact that we have the Torah, a divine document that has stood the test of time and has endured in every place we have lived, includingthe most challenging situations. In classical Jewish literature, Moses is referred to as Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher Moses. One of his greatest lessons to us was presented when he died. His ability to defend the Jewish people even though they had rebelled, at times, directly at him and at other times against G-d, appears to have been one of his greatest legacies.
This Monday night and Tuesday are times dedicated to rejoicing over the Torah and its teachings, which have the ability to allow us feel complete and be at peace with ourselves. We even sing and dance over the knowledge that we possess such a wonderful cache of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual instructions, experiences, and principles. Wherever you find yourself this Monday and Tuesday, make sure you rejoice at the wonderful heritage you possess. If you don’t know anything about it, learn more. If you have learned a bit, commit to sharing it with others.
Chag Samayach-Have a Happy Holiday
(Sources: Midrash Psikta D’Rav Kahane; Rabbi David Rosenberg Commentary to Pirkei Avos Chapter 1, Mishna 6)