Wednesday, Jul 17, 2024




They say that one should never judge a marriage from the outside. You can see a couple walking about in seemingly perfect harmony one day and then, the next, hear that their marriage is breaking up. The same holds true for any close relationship… and, really, for any person. It’s foolish to judge anyone at all, because we can never know the whole story.

Unless we are actually present in the life of that individual or that relationship, day by day or even minute by minute, we’re working blind. Watching the performance from the spectator seats, we are not privy to what’s happening backstage. We simply can’t know.

It’s not uncommon to witness something that raises our hackles. “How could he treat her that way?” “Why isn’t she more grateful?” “He’s mean.” “She’s selfish.” And so on, ad infinitum. We’re very quick to hand out the labels and to slap on the pejoratives. Doing so helps us feel virtuous and even a bit superior. How often does it occur to us that there may be something else going on behind the scenes? Some factor or drama which, if it doesn’t entirely mitigate the crime, at least helps explain it?

Explanations, while not always enough to absolve a person, do help us to at least understand where they’re coming from. And understanding goes a long way toward helping us let go of our anger, dismay, or righteous indignation over the so-called crime. As the saying goes, “To know all is to forgive all.”

Let’s take a look at one or two scenarios.

Suppose you’re invited to a yom tov meal at the home of a much-admired hostess. Her table is always beautifully set, the food bountiful and delicious, the house in perfect order. As you sit at the table, joining your voice to the chorus of compliments directed at your hostess, you notice that her husband’s voice is conspicuously absent from the choir. While he says nothing outright, his manner seems suspiciously unimpressed. You could almost call it surly.

In an instant, you mentally leap to the wife’s defense. Why isn’t he more appreciative of all the efforts she’s obviously put into this magnificent meal? Why isn’t he jumping with joy that he has such a wife? He ought to be showering her with praise as the ultimate Eishes Chayil!

The more you brood about these questions, the blacker the husband appears in your books. Like a teacher grading a poorly performing student, you mark him with an ‘F’ for Failure. Or an ‘I’ for Ingrate. Or perhaps simply a ‘B’ for Bad Guy. Whatever your scoring system, you’ve made quick work of the situation. You’ve seen, you’ve assessed, and you’ve passed judgement.

Now, suppose you were a fly on the wall in that same home a few days earlier. You might have seen some interesting things. You might have noticed that that perfect hostess was either physically absent from her family much of the time, or emotionally unavailable to them even when at home. Or both. As she whirls about preparing for her big bash of a yom tov, she puts everything else out of mind… including her husband and children. She’s out to impress her guests, and that takes her full concentration.

Of course, she makes sure to have something on the table that her husbands and kids will tolerate. But the lion’s share of her efforts, energy and enthusiasm is reserved for the other stuff. The stuff she’s preparing to wow her guests. And her family knows it.

Now, suppose this scenario repeats itself week after week, with a frenzy of nervous irritation radiating from the kitchen to the rest of the house and multiplying before each yom tov. All that work is not necessarily in honor of Shabbos or yom tov. It honors neither her closest human ties nor her bond with Hakadosh Boruch Hu. She labors in a never-ending quest to collect compliments for her accomplishments and thus to feel good about herself. Is it any wonder that her husband is somewhat less than effusive by the time they finally sit down to the banquet, or that her children also seem singularly unimpressed?

Going back even further, in a spirit of compassion, we might try to figure out why that balebusta feels such a profound need for other people’s approval. But that’s a subject for a different discussion. Right now, we’re trying to get a backstage glimpse into their family life. We’d like to shed light on a certain seemingly inexplicable relationship dynamic, so that we can understand it. So that we can, hopefully, forgive it.

Here’s another tableau that’s all too common: two siblings who seem to be at constant odds with one another. One of the siblings falls naturally into the role of the “aggressor” while the other takes on the role of perpetual “victim.” Naturally, our sympathy goes out to the poor victim. It’s so easy to judge the aggressive party negatively, and to slap a “Guilty!” label on him without a second thought.

But we weren’t there as his “victim” sibling teased him unmercifully when no one else was around. We weren’t present when the victim dug sly little arrows of insult and insecurity into his vulnerable heart. We didn’t see all the times the victim crowed with sly triumph when that sibling finally lost his cool and fought back in the only way he knew how, invoking parental wrath and punishment. All we know is that one sibling always “starts up” with the other, quite unprovoked. That’s what we see when the curtain goes up.

As parents and educators, we need to be vigilant. Even more, we need to be imaginative. Knowing how much can and does go on behind the scenes, we should not be too quick to judge or to slap on those “Guilty!” labels. Just why the “victim” feels such a need to treat a sibling in such an underhanded and hurtful way would make a fascinating study for a later time. In judging the resultant scenarios, what we need to know is that there is always a story behind the story. We urgently need to go backstage and find out what it is.

A real judge would be doing a poor job if he didn’t try to get at the truth that lies behind the outward “facts.” Since all of us frequently find ourselves in that role in our own, small worlds, it behooves us to be judicious. To either refrain from judging altogether, as when we are guests at someone else’s table, or, if the case involves our own children or students, to delve thoroughly into the background of the “crime” before meting out the verdict.

Many an unexpected twist and turn can lie behind the surface plot of a story. Many a murky motive or secret sorrow drives the engine of a personality or a relationship. It takes an open mind and a caring heart to go to the trouble of ferreting it out. Even more than a long black robe and a gavel, these are the signs of a wise judge.

The same holds true for those of us who take on the role unofficially, turning into self-appointed judges who climb onto the high bench to tower over our fellow men and pronounce judgement. Which, if you stop to think about it with wry honesty, is basically all of us… basically, all the time!






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