Shortly after the shocking tragedy of the Chevron Massacre in 1929, a group of yungeleit visited Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld to learn from him and to hear pure Torah hashkafah. The conversation segued to recent events, the misfortunes that befell Klal Yisroel and the spilling of innocent Jewish blood in Eretz Yisroel. One of the visitors commented, “All of this is happening to us because of the aveirah of non-religious Jews who play soccer on Shabbos.”
Upon hearing this, Rav Yosef Chaim stood up and, as was his wont when his feelings were moved, he planted the palms of his hands on the edge of the table and said with great emotion, “My opinion is different than yours. I cannot agree to what was said here that it is because of those young ballplayers that our people are suffering. Who are these transgressors? Most of them were soldiers during World War I. Undoubtedly, during the war, they were compelled to become defiled with forbidden food, chillul Shabbos, and the like. In this situation of being removed from Yiddishkeit, they violated many grave aveiros that the time and circumstances brought about.
“After finally being freed from army duty, they returned home to their families in cities in Russia and Ukraine. There they faced the outbreak of pogroms led by the vicious Petliura and his mobs, who brutally slaughtered men, women and children. Amongst these martyrs were perhaps their fathers or grandfathers wrapped in tallis and tefillin while they died.
“Now I ask you,” continued Rav Yosef Chaim, “what do you expect from people who experienced all of this? Is their sin so heavy that all of Klal Yisroel should be punished because of them? Who, then, is guilty? We are guilty! We were not forced to eat forbidden food. We were not compelled to be mechallel Shabbos. Our parents were not slaughtered in front of our eyes. We merited living in Yerushalayim Ihr Hakodesh in a chareidi environment, a city full of chachomim and tzaddikim. Therefore, much more is expected of us. And if we are not meticulous in our mitzvos and complete in our ways, who knows? Who knows if it’s not because of us that we are being punished and Klal Yisroel must suffer…”
This was the way of Rav Yosef Chaim always. Despite the fact that he fought vigorously against those who sought to undermine our mesorah, he would protest against those who delved into the sins of others (Chochmas Chaim, Mikeitz).
In the parsha of the avodah of Yom Kippur, we learn, “Aharon shall place lots on the two he-goats: one lot for Hashem and one lot for Azazel” (Vayikra 16:8). The meforshim ask what the significance of the goral, the drawing of the lots, is. Why didn’t it suffice to merely designate one he-goat for Hashem and one for Azazel without the lots? The Sefer Akeidah says something incredible, giving us insight into why Hashem forgives even the most egregious sins.
This teaches us that even for those who transgress and rebel to the highest degree, there is reason to provide for them pardon and forgiveness, for many of them did not sink to this level by their own choice, but rather because of the natural characteristics and tendencies that they were born with. And even though a person has the power of choice and no one can attribute all of his sins to his nature, nevertheless, not all people are judged equally. Those who were born with a difficult nature will receive a much greater reward for conquering their yeitzer hara. Similarly, they will not be judged as harshly if they did not overcome their weakness. For this reason, there are lots chosen to show that different people have different goralos in life that we cannot understand. Therefore, they are judged differently (Akeidah, Shaar 36).
Even amongst tzaddikim, there are differences in the way they are judged. Shaul committed one sin and lost the kingdom because of it. Dovid committed two sins and did not lose the melucha (Yoma 22b). Is there favoritism being played here? Why was Dovid judged more kindly than Shaul?
Numerous reasons are given for this. Some meforshim say that Shaul Hamelech’s neshamah came from a much higher level and it was naturally more refined. He did not have to work hard to overcome his yeitzer hara, so he was held responsible even for one aveirah. Not so Dovid Hamelech, whose neshamah came from a lower level and had to fight much harder against his yeitzer hara. Therefore, he merited a pardon for his aveiros more easily (Mishbetzos Zohov, Shmuel I, 15:11).
If Hashem is considerate even of resha’im because of the difficult situations that fell to their lot, how much more do we have to be understanding of fellow ehrliche Jews and judge them favorably? Not all men are created equal. People are born into difficult situations, with different natures, different strengths and weaknesses, and different fears and sensitivities. No wonder Hillel says, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place” (Avos). As the Kotzker says, because it is impossible to reach your fellow’s place, it is also impossible to judge him at all.
Unfortunately, people have a tendency to opine about others. If they are kind enough to keep it to themselves, they might have favorable thoughts in judging others. They might have questions like: “Why don’t they…” In matters of chinuch, it might be, “Why don’t they discipline their child? Why do they let them run free, without any supervision whatsoever? Why don’t they spend some constructive time with him? It might calm him down. We would never allow this to happen with our children.” Really? Chances are that the person asking these questions never had a difficult child and probably attributes his child’s mild manners to his brilliant chinuch.
This is not uncommon. A parent once told me that he was convinced after having seven children who were metzuyanim that he was an expert in chinuch. Then, when he had to put up with the challenges presented by the next child, he realized that he wasn’t the expert he thought he was. Of course, our children’s tendencies do not absolve us of trying our utmost to be mechanech them. But after all of our hishtadlus, their success depends upon siyata diShmaya.
Sometimes, we can be guilty of this with our own children. We will tell Moishy, “Why can’t you just sit down and do your homework like Yanky?” The answer to that is, of course, because he is not Yanky; he is Moishy. Yanky is more settled and is more naturally inclined to learn, while Moishy is more antsy and finds it more difficult to concentrate. One child cannot be judged by the other one’s tendencies. Chanoch lana’ar al pi darko.
Or how about this one: Why do their children always look so neglected? Why do they look so unkempt? Can’t they get their act together? Another perfect example of judging someone else while standing in your own shoes. Do you have any idea what is going on in someone else’s life? Perhaps they’re going through some difficulties that you know nothing about – financial, emotional, shalom bayis… There are many possibilities.
Years ago, my wife, who was just beginning her tzedakah endeavors, was collecting for a family who hadn’t paid their electric bill in months and their electricity was about to be turned off by the electric company. She approached a person of means for a donation. The person commented, “I don’t understand how people could allow themselves to get into such a situation in the first place.” My wife was taken aback at this insensitive comment and shared her dismay with Rebbetzin Mashinsky, who together with her husband founded Kupas Ezra, a tzedakah that provides for thousands of families.
The rebbetzin replied, “How could that person understand? They live in comfort and never had a problem paying a bill. For many experiencing financial difficulties, the moment the bill arrives in the mail, it goes straight to the garbage. They just can’t face the pressure of having the bill stare them in the face when they know full well that they can’t pay it.”
It works the other way as well. One time, the Chofetz Chaim was melamed zechus on wealthy people who do not give tzedakah according to their capabilities. People who castigate the rich for this don’t realize what a yeitzer hara comes along with wealth. They think to themselves, “If I were as wealthy as he, I would most certainly contribute generously to all of the various mosdos of Torah and chesed.” That’s easy to say in their present state, when they don’t have the money. Once they acquire it, though, it is hard to part with.
The best policy, of course, is not to judge others at all and not to think that we are better than our friends. Rav Naftali Ropshitzer related that he learned the true meaning of humility and ahavas Yisroel from his melamed who taught him Alef-Bais and kriah. When he came to the two yudin next to each other, the melamed said, “That is the name of Hashem.” Later, he came to the end of a sentence and saw two dots on top of each other that appeared to him as two yudin, so he read it as the name of Hashem. The melamed corrected him, saying that it is not the name of Hashem, but rather a sign to stop.
The boy asked his rebbi, “But before, we learned that two yuds together are Hashem’s name.” The melamed explained, “When the two yuds are next to each other, side by side, that is the name of Hashem, but when one is on top of the other, then it is a sign to stop.”
Rav Naftali said that this served as a lesson for the rest of his life. When the two yudin (Jews) stand on the same level side by side, that is where the name of Hashem is found. Because the Shechinah rests where there is achdus. But if one yud is on top of the other, trying to elevate himself while putting the other one down, that is not the name of Hashem, but rather a sign showing that there has been a stoppage in this man’s ruchniyus.
During these days when we mourn the deaths of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva for not according each other the proper kavod, these are lessons that we must internalize. If I enjoy success in an area where my neighbor does not, it is only because of the grace of Hashem. Rather than judging others, we should spend our time thanking Hashem for the good fortune he has bestowed upon us. Understanding our friend’s situation and being sensitive to it will lead to the achdus necessary as a prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah, “like one man with one heart.”