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Judging Others - And Yourself

May 9, 2009 | by Lori Palatnik

We should always give others – and ourselves – the benefit of the doubt.

We often make the mistake in our religious lives of thinking that unless we do everything perfectly, it's better not to do anything at all. After all, we think, why be a hypocrite?

In my seminar, "How to Raise a Mensch," I mention that you should never punish a child in a state of anger. Now let's say that I invite you to my home the next Friday night following the class. You come to enjoy a nice Shabbat meal, but during the course of the evening my children really begin to act up. (Yes, even the rabbi's children misbehave.) I try to patiently discipline them, distract them, bribe them – and then I lose my temper. Seething with anger, I punish them.

On the way home you say to yourself, "Is she ever a hypocrite! Just this week she taught us that you should never punish out of anger, and tonight she did just that."

Hypocrites do not put something into action because they never believed it in the first place.

Am I a hypocrite? Hypocrites say something, and do not put it into action because they never believed it in the first place. When I said that you shouldn't punish with anger, I believed it. The fact that I lost my temper on Friday night does not make me a hypocrite; it makes me a human being who is trying to live my beliefs as best as I can.

If I make a mistake raising my children, do I say, "Oh no! I lost my temper. I guess I'd better give them to the neighbor to raise?"

No. I calm down, try to smooth things over, and start again.

If you're on a diet and you sneak a donut, is it right to say, "I might as well eat the whole box?"

Definitely not.

Yet when it comes to Judaism, we often say that if we can't do it all, we might as well not do any of it. This idea is a mistake. Every mitzvah that we do, every act of kindness, every recognition of God is forever – even if we err the minute before and the minute after.

Sometimes in life you may take three steps forward and two steps back. But at least you're making progress!

Effort and Success

We have our ideals – not to yell at our children, to greet everyone with a smile, to judge people kindly, to remember there is a God above us – but it's hard to live up to them. God understands that. He created us. He is not surprised when we make mistakes.

God wants us to make the effort, whether we succeed or not.

Our sages say: "According to the pain is the reward" (Avot 5:26). This means that the reward is for trying, not accomplishing. All God wants is for us to make the effort, whether we succeed or not. God doesn't expect perfection, but He does expect us to try to understand life, to make decisions based on our values and not on whims and feelings, and to strive to live with those decisions.

Our sages ask, what is the difference between a good person and a wicked person?

The answer: "A good person falls seven times, a wicked person only once" (Proverbs, 24:16). A good person falls and then gets back up, again, and again, and again. But a wicked person falls and never gets up.

Making mistakes cannot be avoided. But what we learn from those mistakes, and how we live our lives afterward is the true test of every human being.

Judging Others

Our sages ask, when are you allowed to judge another person? The answer: Never. The explanation given is as follows:

Who says your blood is redder than his? (Talmud - Sanhedrin 74a)

In other words, we do not know who is more beloved in the eyes of God. We don't know who is really the better person, the homeless person or the cancer scientist. We don't know what challenges God may have given someone growing up. We meet people in the middle of their life stories, in "Chapter 3." We have no idea what went on in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, and we certainly don't know what lies ahead in Chapters 4, 5 and 6.

Yet we are so quick to judge. A person who seems at a low point may in fact have worked very hard to overcome hardship and reach even this level. Others, although they may look righteous and accomplished, may be using only a tiny portion of their talents and skills.

Things that don't come naturally are much more important in terms of self- actualization.

How often have people praised you for something that comes naturally and takes little effort on your part? Perhaps it's an artistic ability or language fluency. Yet other areas of your life that may not come so naturally take a much greater amount of pain and effort. They may not be the areas that shine and attract attention, but you know, and God knows, that they are much more important in terms of self-actualization.

Jewish tradition it says we can't judge someone "unless we've arrived in his or her place." And since we can never be in exactly the same place and life circumstance as another person, we are never allowed to judge anyone.

But this doesn't mean we should be so open-minded that we blindly accept anyone or anything. We can't judge a person, but we can judge actions. Even when people make mistakes, we can still see the best in them, love them, and care for them in spite of their mistakes. We do see this with our children. Who knows their flaws better than we do? Yet we choose to love them.

Only God can truly judge a person, and His judgment is to the individual, not based on a formula. Maimonides said that a person may achieve one merit that could outweigh a lifetime of mistakes.

Infinite Potential

What is the first attribute that God uses to judge a person? It is the learning of life wisdom. But that does not mean that the first step in judgment is based on how much we know. It is based on our learning, on how hard we tried to find out what was right. God doesn't expect perfection, but He does expect us to try, in every aspect of our lives.

Don't let one mistake diminish the good person that you know that you are.

Our Sages teach, "Do not regard yourself as a wicked person." This means it is a mistake even to judge ourselves. We all err in judgment, but each one of us is created in God's image, and to label ourselves "stupid," "bad," or "worthless," is counter to His plan. Each person was created with infinite potential.

When you make a mistake, stop, clear it up, and get back on track. Don't let one mistake diminish the good person that you know that you are and the greatness that God knows you can achieve.

As an exercise, think back to your favorite relative. How did your loved one look at others? Did they give others the benefit of the doubt? Did they make an effort to judge others favorably? What was their own sense of self-worth?

Try to remember a story from their life that illustrates these ideals. And then live with it!

Adapted from "Remember My Soul," by Lori Palatnik (Leviathan Press)

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