Benefit of the Doubt
Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )
Each of us has a judge and jury inside of our heads, and each incident we see is another 'court case' for us to decide whether the people involved are innocent or guilty. In this week's portion, we learn about the consequences of speaking badly of others. Our sages teach that one of the best ways to avoid speaking negatively about people is by giving them the benefit of the doubt and judging them favorably. God wants us to try our best to find people 'innocent' by judging them favorably whenever we can.
In our story, a kid stretches his imagination to judge favorably and gets a big surprise.
"THE MONEY CHANGER"
It was show-and-tell time. Mr. Hall, the teacher, had asked the kids to bring in something special from their recent spring break. "Jason, do you have something to show us?" he asked the boy who was enthusiastically waving his hand in the air.
Jason smiled. Did he ever! He slowly pulled a really old looking piece of paper with a lot of fancy writing out of an envelope. "This is Confederate money that's almost 150 years old! I bought at the Civil War Museum."
The kids in the class gasped, and begged him to pass it around for them all to see.
"Okay, but be really careful and give it right back," he said as he handed it to the kid next to him.
Everyone excitedly took turns gawking at the treasure. The teacher, who had to step out of the room, asked the kids to quickly finish passing it around and then give it back to Jason so that by the time he returned the class could go on.
"Okay guys, please give it back to me now," Jason said after a few minutes. But nobody made a move to give it back. He waited one minute, two, but still nobody gave it back.
The room was buzzing. "Come on guys, this isn't a joke," Jason pleaded with a broken voice. "Whoever had it last, just give it back - now."
But all the kids just held up their hands and shook their heads as if to say, 'I don't have it.'
After another tense moment or so, Saul stood up. "Look," he said, "I know I don't have it, and I don't mind emptying my pockets and opening my desk to prove it."
"Yeah," chimed in Steven. "Let's all do that, and then we'll all know who's innocent - and who's not!"
One after another, the kids emptied out their pockets and opened up their desks. There were some pretty strange things showing up, double laser key chains, more than one Gameboy, and even one kid's collection of already-been-chewed bubble gum - but no Civil War money.
Soon it was Eric's turn. Eric was the nicest guy in the class - and one of the smartest. It seemed pointless to even ask him to show his stuff; he'd never take anything that wasn't his, even as a joke. But it was his turn and he had to empty everything out just like everyone else.
The class got the surprise of their lives when Eric just sat there blushing and making all kinds of excuses not to show his stuff.
"Open up your desk," demanded Steven.
"I'm telling you I didn't take it." Eric insisted.
"So then why won't you open your desk?"
"Just because," Eric answered vaguely, turning redder with each passing moment.
Jason didn't know what to think. He always tried to judge people favorably, but the way Eric was acting was very suspicious.
Things were getting pretty hot, and some of the kids began accusing Eric of taking the money. A couple of them even wanted to go over to the boy and make him open up his desk.
Everyone turned to look at Jason, who had stood up in the middle of the classroom.
"Everybody just calm down right now." he said.
"Did you find the money?" asked Saul.
"Not exactly." Jason answered. "But I know that Eric didn't take it."
"How do you know that?" asked Steven.
"Because the Torah tells us to judge people favorably, even if it looks bad, and that's what I'm going to do. I don't know where the money is, but I know Eric and if he says he didn't take it, I believe him."
"So then did it just float into the air?" mocked Steven "What you call judging favorably I call being a sucker. Just look at the evidence..."
Just then, the door of the classroom opened. In walked Mr. Hall, holding Jason's Confederate money in his hand!
"Guys, I'm surprised at you. I would think you'd take better care of something so valuable."
Everyone was flabbergasted.
"On my way back to the classroom I noticed this lying on the floor of the hallway just outside the door. It must have slipped off somebody's desk and under the door."
Mr. Hall handed the bill to Jason and everyone was amazed and relieved. Jason was right - nobody had taken it. But then everybody turned to look at Eric. "I'm sorry I accused you," said Steven, red as a beet. "But if you really didn't take it why did you refuse to open your desk?"
Eric took a deep breath, opened his desk, and pulled out an identical looking Confederate bill! The class went wild.
"I went to the same museum as Jason over the vacation," Eric explained, "and I brought in the same souvenir money for show-and-tell. But when Jason lost his money, I was afraid nobody would believe me. That is until I saw how Jason was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt - even when things looked bad."
The two boys shook hands and the class learned a lesson about judging favorably that is a lot more valuable than anything money could buy.
Q. How did Steven feel at first when Jason judged Eric favorably?
A. He felt like it was foolish not to accuse him, when it looked like he did it.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. He felt sorry he accused Eric, and saw how by judging favorably Jason was really right.
Q. What did the class learn from what happened that day?
A. They learned the power and importance of judging favorably. By judging favorably we save ourselves from a lot of arguments and bad feelings, and that often things are not how they at first appear.
Q. If Eric had really taken the money, would Jason have been a sucker for judging him favorably?
A. A person is never a sucker for doing the right thing. God wants us to judge each other favorably and look at each other with a good eye. One way or the other He would have made sure that in the end Jason wouldn't have lost out by doing so.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our sages teach that God judges us the way we judge others. What do you think this means?
A. Almost anything a person does has both positive and negative aspects. For instance if I do someone a favor it might be partly out of a genuine desire to help, and partly because I want him to do me a favor some day. God knows that, and He will choose to focus on the positive or negative parts of us and our actions to the exact degree that we choose to focus on the positive or negative aspects of others. If we want God to give us the benefit of the doubt, all we have to do is start giving the benefit of the doubt to others.
Q. Is there ever a time we shouldn't judge someone favorably?
A. The Torah has specific guidelines about when we should and when we shouldn't, and we'll gain a lot by learning these. But a good general rule of thumb is to try to give people the benefit of the doubt whenever we can.