The Benefit of the Doubt

We all know that the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed on account of the aveirah of sinas chinam. Sinah manifests in many ways, including failing to give others the benefit of the doubt when their actions seem improper. It would be best for us to learn to see the good in others, rather than focusing on their faults. During the period of bein hameitzarim, this is certainly an area in which we should strive to improve. But what if there seems to be no room at all to give someone the benefit of the doubt? The following collection of stories told by Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein explores that question.

In difficult times, when the middas hadin seems to be in force and there are constant reports of tragedies or disasters, we have always been taught that there is one particular segulah that can be highly effective in preventing further misfortune: viewing others in a favorable light. All the seforim emphasize the importance of viewing others, and Klal Yisroel as a whole, favorably. If we examine the sources of this sugya, we find that giving others the benefit of the doubt is not merely an added virtue or an act that goes beyond the letter of the law. On the contrary, it is an absolute obligation.

The Ben Ish Chai composed a special tefillah in defense of the Jewish people, which begins with the words, “I am prepared and willing, with the help of G-d, to fulfill the positive commandment of b’tzedek tishpot amisecha [‘you shall judge your fellow favorably’] and the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.” It seems, then, that the mandate to judge others favorably is included in two of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah.

But what you should do in a case when it doesn’t seem possible to come up with a favorable interpretation of someone’s actions? For instance, what if you are in shul and you see a person looking around furtively, making sure that he is not being observed, and then removing coins from the shul’s pushke? Is there any argument to be made in that person’s defense? Even if he is starving, that does not change the fact that he is a thief! Or what if you see a motorist collide with another car and then immediately speed away from the scene of the accident? Is it possible to find a charitable interpretation of his actions?

The answer, in fact, is yes. There are some people in the world who will always find something positive to say. We all know that Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev was a master at finding ways to speak positively of the Jewish people. One year on erev Pesach, for instance, he made the following declaration: “There are certain products that are illegal to possess, since they are brought into the country only by smugglers. If someone were to visit a store and ask for contraband, there is no doubt that he would be able to procure some of these forbidden items, despite the fact that soldiers are constantly on patrol, the police regularly search stores for smuggled goods, and possession of these items is punishable by stiff penalties and even imprisonment.

“At the same time, if a person were to enter a Jewish home on the Seder night and announce that the rov had sent him on an urgent mission to procure a small bottle of beer, he would not find one anywhere! And that is not because the people are afraid of the police or the soldiers; it is solely because Hashem has commanded us to remove chometz from our possession.”

Rav Levi Yitzchok once passed by a wagon driver who was oiling the wheels of his wagon as he davened. Another passerby said disapprovingly, “What a disgrace! Look at this man working on the wheels of his wagon while he is in the middle of davening!” Rav Levi Yitzchok motioned for him to be silent. “On the contrary,” he said, “this man is a tzaddik! He is davening even as he is in the midst of taking care of the wheels of his wagon!”

When No Defense Can Be Found

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein relates that Rav Aryeh Levin, who had mastered the virtue of judging others favorably, used to ask, “When a person commits an injustice, how should the victim react? Should he judge the perpetrator favorably, or should he accept that he has been wronged and exercise the virtue of being maavir al midosav, assuring the offender that he forgives him completely and harbors no ill will for the injustice he has committed? Which of the two is the greater virtue?” Rav Aryeh would then answer that it is indeed preferable to judge others favorably. If a person chooses to forgive someone who has wronged him, he explained, then he will still harbor the inner certainty that he was correct and that the perpetrator was wrong. A person who chooses to judge someone else favorably, on the other hand, will view the other as being innocent of any wrongdoing.

In a similar vein, Rav Zilberstein continues, Rav Aryeh Levin once said to one of his grandsons, “There are two types of people—one who loves truth and one who despises falsehood. Do you know what the difference is between them?” His grandson thought about the question for a while and then confessed that he did not see any difference. Rav Aryeh replied, “The difference between them is as great as the distance between east and west! The person who loves truth will always search for some element of truth within another person, and when he finds it, it will cause him to love that person. Then, when he discovers another element of truth within him, his love for the person will grow deeper.

“A person who despises falsehood, on the other hand, will find some point of falsehood within another person and will come to despise him, and then, when he discovers yet another element of falsehood within him, his loathing will grow deeper, and so forth. Thus, a person who loves truth will love other people and will be loved by them, whereas a person who despises falsehood will reach the opposite extreme, despising others and being loathed by them.”

This brings us back to our initial question: What should a person do when there seems to be no rational basis for giving someone the benefit of the doubt? Rav Zilberstein has collected several true stories of incidents in which a person’s actions seemed completely indefensible, yet there turned out to be a perfectly rational explanation for what they had done. In these cases, an observer must devote more thought to coming up with an explanation. Often, it entails thinking out of the box. And a person must also ask himself how he would react to what he had seen if the act had been committed by his own son.

I will begin with the stories themselves, incidents in which there seems to be no way to put a positive spin on someone’s actions. The real explanations, which will certainly defy your expectations, will appear at the end of the article.

The Missing Invitation

Here is the first story: “I was in the courtyard outside a bais medrash, when someone arrived carrying three large bags filled with shaimos. I watched as he tried to stuff the contents of the bags into the genizah receptacle, and when he wasn’t able to fit everything inside, he left the bags on the floor beside it. I couldn’t help but feel resentful. After all, there was a large sign above the genizah bin announcing that it is forbidden to use the shul’s genizah for private shaimos. Moreover, there was a public genizah bin on the next block. Why should he create an additional expense for the shul to save himself a few shekels? I tried to come up with an explanation in his favor, but I could not imagine what could possibly have impelled him to bring shaimos from elsewhere to the shul. But then he explained it to me….”

Perhaps some explanation is in order for American readers. I don’t know how shaimos is handled in your country, but here in Israel, there are two organizations that have taken it upon themselves to arrange for the burial of those items. These organizations maintain large bins in public areas for people to deposit their shaimos, for a small fee. The bins are periodically emptied, and their contents are buried in appropriate locations.

In addition to the cost of the bins, trucks, and other operating costs of any such organization, the burial itself comes with a hefty price tag. The government encourages recycling, and anyone who insists on burying papers in the ground—which, as far as the Israeli government is concerned, is an ineffective way to dispose of garbage—is slapped with a fine. I once tried to help Rav Eliezer Bodenheim, who founded a genizah organization, to receive an exemption from the fine. Indeed, the price of his work was lowered dramatically. The Minister of Environmental Protection at the time, who was attentive to our request, was Avi Gabbay.

In any event, in this particular story, the conclusion seemed inescapable: The man depositing his shaimos in the shul was clearly seeking to save the few shekels he would have had to pay for placing the papers in the public receptacle. But that was only how it seemed….

Then there is another story: For a while, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the lives of the distinguished Goldberg* family. They had been blessed with nine children, and Rabbi and Mrs. Goldberg invested enormous amounts of energy in their upbringing. There was always a hot meal awaiting the children when they returned home from school, and while the family subsisted on a meager budget, they were always able to live with joy and contentment. One day, though, Mrs. Goldberg began to feel unwell. At first, she thought her weakness would pass, but when it continued affecting her, she went to see a doctor. The family was devastated when she was diagnosed with leukemia.

She was hospitalized and began undergoing chemotherapy, and her illness naturally became the center of the family’s attention. In the dizzying circumstances into which the family had been thrust, no one could even think about mundane issues such as preparing meals for the children, but their neighbors quickly stepped in to provide for them. One particular family committed to bringing lunch for the Goldbergs every Monday afternoon.

For a long time, Mrs. Goldberg suffered through frequent hospitalizations. Throughout that time, the same kind neighbors continued faithfully bringing a homemade meal to the family every Monday afternoon. Mrs. Goldberg underwent a bone marrow transplant and returned home in a weakened state, and the neighbors promised to continue providing the same weekly meals until she had fully recovered.

One day, she was surprised to learn that her weekly benefactors were planning a bar mitzvah for their son. In fact, she was told, the bar mitzvah was due to take place very soon. She was quite surprised that she hadn’t received an invitation. True, she was somewhat weakened by her medical ordeal, but there was no reason for them not to invite her to the simcha, even though she might not be able to attend. Of course, she didn’t say a word to her neighbors, but she was still somewhat pained by the fact that she hadn’t been invited. But then, one Monday afternoon….

But let me not spoil the ending for you. Can you come up with any possible explanations for these two incidents?

Unruly Children on the Subway

The following story took place in the United States—in New York, to be precise.

The passengers on the subway train were sitting in silence. Some of them were engrossed in newspapers, while others were focused on their own thoughts. Several passengers were also taking the opportunity to doze. The atmosphere in the train car was fairly calm and restful—until a Jewish man boarded the train at one of the stops, accompanied by his children. The children were loud and unruly, and the atmosphere in the train immediately changed.

One Jewish passenger related, “The father sat down next to me and closed his eyes. It was clear that he was completely ignoring his children’s behavior. The children shouted at each other, threw things at each other, and even went so far as to pull the newspapers out of the hands of other passengers on the train. Throughout this episode, the father didn’t even lift a finger to stop them. The situation became intolerable, and it was hard for me to avoid being incensed by the man’s flagrant irresponsibility and insensitivity. How could he allow his children to run wild and disturb all the passengers on the train?”

The passengers in that car had hardly anything in common with each other, but there was one common denominator among them: They were all outraged by the father’s complete disregard for the pandemonium his children were causing. Finally, one of the passengers turned to the man and said, making the utmost effort to remain calm, “Sir, ever since your children got on this train, they have been disturbing all the passengers. Can’t you control them a little?”

The man seemed startled, as if he was first becoming aware of the situation only at that moment. “You are right,” he said quietly. “I really should do something about it, but….”

And here is yet another incident: One evening, a famous rebbetzin was delivering a lecture in a community in the United States. An audience of about 300 women had gathered in the lecture hall, and as the rebbetzin began speaking, one of the women suddenly shouted loudly, “We don’t need it!” The rebbetzin immediately grew tense. She had prepared an excellent drosha, yet this woman was claiming that her audience didn’t need to hear it. What should she do? Should she go on, or simply halt her speech? The rebbetzin continued speaking for the next hour, trying to ignore the anguished concerns that swirled dizzyingly in her head. At the end of her speech, the same woman shouted, “Yasher koach! What an excellent lecture!”

At this point, the rebbetzin was completely bewildered. This woman, after all, had shouted at the beginning of the lecture that the audience had no need to hear it. Why was she now complimenting the speaker? The rebbetzin mustered the courage to approach the woman and ask her directly. “I don’t understand,” she said. “When I began speaking, you shouted that you don’t need to hear what I had to say, but at the end, you complimented me on it. How am I supposed to understand that?”

An Incomprehensible Boast

This brings us to the next perplexing incident: An elderly rov was making the rounds of various Jewish homes and businesses, soliciting funds for one of the most prominent Sephardic yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel. At the home of one philanthropist, the rov was treated to a royal reception, as was befitting for a gadol of his stature. After the visitor had made his case to his host, the wealthy homeowner rose from his seat and announced that he would return momentarily with a hefty donation.

The rov did not waste time as he sat in the lavishly decorated room; he removed a sefer from the bookcase and began to learn as he waited for his host to return. The philanthropist, meanwhile, finished counting out a wad of bills to hand to his visitor, and he returned to the room—but as soon as he crossed the threshold, he froze in shock. The visiting rov was holding a volume of Gemara upside down! He didn’t even know which way to hold a sefer! The host was astounded, and an expression of suspicion spread across his face. The rabbi looked up and smiled at his reaction. “Don’t be too quick to judge me unfavorably,” he admonished his host….

And now for our last story, which is perhaps the most bewildering of all: Reuven arrived at his friend’s wedding and took a seat at an empty table, scanning the crowd for a familiar face. It did not take long before he spotted a regal-looking figure at the entrance to the wedding hall: Rav Moshe Yaakov Ravikov zt”l, one of the greatest tzaddikim of the generation, who was known simply as the Shoemaker, had arrived at the simcha. Reuven could not imagine how the baalei simcha had earned the privilege of having their wedding attended by such a renowned spiritual giant. His surprise turned to astonishment as he watched the Shoemaker head toward his table, and then sit down in the seat directly beside him!

It took a moment for Reuven to recover his wits, but he turned to the rov and said in a trembling voice, “Would the rov perhaps share a short vort with me, some sort of dvar Torah or chizuk?” Reuven then began describing the suffering and hardships that he was experiencing at home, and asked the rov for a brocha and some words of encouragement.

Rav Moshe Yaakov turned to him and exclaimed, “You are asking for chizuk? Don’t you know that in the town where I was born, there was a man who would have paid thousands of rubles to see me?”

Reuven was shocked by this response. The Shoemaker was known for his profound humility, yet the tzaddik simply repeated, “Do you hear what I am saying? There was a man in the town where I was born who was willing to pay thousands of rubles merely in order to see me? Is that such an insignificant thing to you?”

The Unlikely Explanations

With that introduction, I will now present the explanations that came to light in each of these incidents, as a reminder that there is always room to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

First, there was the case of the young man who decided to avail himself of a shaimos bin in a shul. As it turned out, that wasn’t precisely what had happened. “I was walking down the street,” he informed the observer, “and I saw that there was a mound of shaimos from the shul sitting outside, and it was about to begin raining. I was afraid that the shaimos might be disgraced if it stayed outside in the rain, so I found a few plastic bags and I brought the items into the shul.” In other words, he hadn’t been disposing of his own private shaimos at all; he had simply been attending to the shul’s needs.

Then there was the case of the bar mitzvah invitation: On the day of the bar mitzvah, the bochur himself brought an invitation to the ailing Mrs. Goldberg. When he was asked why his family had waited so long to send the invitation, he replied simply, “My mother didn’t want to send you an invitation earlier, because she was afraid that as soon as you found out we were having a simcha, you wouldn’t allow her to cook for you anymore.”

Then there was the father of the rambunctious children on the subway train. To the passenger who had rebuked him, the father said simply, “We are on our way home from the hospital. My wife, the mother of these children, passed away just an hour ago. I don’t know what to do, and it seems that they awlso do not know how to deal with the tragedy that just struck them.”

As for the woman who had interrupted the lecture of the visiting rebbetzin, it turned out that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for her outburst, as well. She was horrified to discover how the rebbetzin had interpreted her exclamation. “I wasn’t referring to you at all!” she exclaimed. “Someone on the other side of the room had asked if I would mind if they directed the air conditioning vents to blow in that direction, and I told her that I didn’t need the air conditioning at all!”

This leaves us with our final two stories, both of which concern rabbonim whose actions seem to defy understanding. First, there was the rabbi who appeared not to know how to hold a Gemara. To his astonished host, he explained simply, “I grew up in Iran, where we had a paucity of seforim. As a result, several talmidim would share a single Gemara, and we all learned how to read from different directions. Thus, I learned how to read upside down, just as the Yemenites do. In order to retain that ability, I sometimes make a point of holding a Gemara upside down.”

Finally, there was the Shoemaker’s mystifying comment. When he observed Reuven’s bafflement, he explained, “There was a man in the town where I grew up who was blind. This Jew would have paid thousands of rubles simply to see me … or to see any other human being. Yet you are able to see with both of your eyes, and you still say that the situation in your home makes you despondent. Before anything else, you should dance over the fact that you have two functioning eyes!”

The tzaddik then placed a hand on Reuven’s shoulder and continued, “If you want to live a life filled with joy and contentment, you must always remember to give thanks to Hashem for the seemingly simple gifts that He gives you—your life, your health, and countless other good things. If you live with that feeling, you will find it much easier to overcome all hardships.”

“Where Are You in Gehinnom?”

There are some times when it can be very hard to judge others favorably, but there are also times when it is easy. Sometimes, the tiniest additional fact makes the most bizarre or even suspicious story seem completely sensible. For instance, what would you have said if you heard me ask someone, “Nu, Yissochar Dov, where are you in Gehinnom?”

I am sure that if you overheard that question, you would consider it bizarre, perhaps even offensive. But let me quote the Chofetz Chaim: “The same is true regarding the nefesh. One must trace the source [of its malaise] to determine how one developed this evil trait, to know how to take care to avoid its entrapment in the future. This sin [lashon hora] has many causes and identifying signs [which are represented by the acronym] kol Gehinnom: kaas, leitzanus, gaavah, yiush, hefker, narganus, omeir mutar [anger, scoffing, arrogance, despair, lack of discipline, negativity, and the presumption that a sin is permitted]. ” This passage appears in Shaar HaTevunah, where the Chofetz Chaim goes on to elaborate on each of these negative traits.

At the end of our daily Daf Yomi shiur, delivered by Rav Eliyahu Yitzchok Pincus, a passage from the Chofetz Chaim’s writings is read aloud by Rav Yissachar Dov Braun. I missed the shiur one day, and when I saw Rav Yissachar Dov that evening, I asked him innocently how far he had gotten in “Gehinnom”—that is, in the Chofetz Chaim’s discussion of this subject.

It Was All in the Script

On that note, Rav Yaakov Edelstein once told the following story: A young man was once offered a shidduch, and after conducting extensive investigations, his parents were about to approve the idea. Based on everything they had been told, it seemed the girl in question was endowed with yiras shomayim, excellent middos, and every other desirable quality. But then they questioned one of the family’s neighbors, who informed them that the girl had a tendency to explode in anger. From time to time, they would hear her flying into a rage and shouting insolently at her mother, screaming disrespectful comment such as, “What kind of mother are you?”

The young man’s parents were confident that the neighbor was telling the truth, but they could not reconcile this new information with the glowing reports they received from the girl’s teachers and friends. Finally, they arrived at the conclusion that the girl must have had some sort of emotional disturbance. Only that could explain how she was a model student and excellent friend in school, yet was capable of such extreme outbursts at home.

At some point, one of the girl’s teachers became aware of what the parents had been told. This teacher knew that the neighbor’s reports couldn’t possibly be true; she was well acquainted with the young lady and was confident of her sterling character. She knew the girl was extremely respectful toward her parents, and that she couldn’t possibly have spoken to them with the insolence that the neighbor claimed to have heard. The teacher investigated the matter, and eventually discovered the truth….

In this case, as well, there seemed to be no plausible explanation for this story. After all, the neighbor had merely told the concerned parents about the shouting and insults that she had heard through the wall that separated their apartments. What ordinary, upstanding girl could possibly speak to her mother in that way?

But the answer was all too simple: This girl had a part in her school’s annual play, and she was rehearsing at home for the show. The insults that the neighbor had heard had been part of the script! In fact, she hadn’t been shouting at her mother at all; she was merely rehearsing her lines in an empty room.

Incidentally, I believe that I myself am the source of this story. I wrote a similar account several years ago based on an incident involving my own daughter, albeit not one that involved a shidduch. The story was simpler: I had returned home and heard her shouting and crying in her room. I became alarmed, but my wife reassured me that she was merely rehearsing for a school play. Over the years, it seems, this story has been embellished in the retelling.

Nevertheless, I can offer a defense even for the exaggeration of this story. After all, Rav Sholom Schwadron once told an audience, “I asked a prominent rov if I am allowed to make up stories to give chizuk to my listeners, and he told me that it is permitted. And that is one of the stories….”