We all have a courtroom in our head, and each of us is the judge and jury. Whenever we see our friend do something that looks like it might not be right, we make a decision -- will we give him the benefit of the doubt or pronounce him guilty on the spot? The Torah teaches us to judge each other favorably. Maybe there is a good reason why our friend did what he did, or perhaps we didn't see the whole picture.
In our Torah portion this week, we are told that Joseph would bring his father Jacob unfavorable reports about his brothers' apparent misbehavior. But our Sages teach us that the brothers were really innocent and Joseph had misinterpreted what he saw. His brothers came to resent him for the things he told their father. Even though Joseph had only the best of intentions, he was wrong -- he should have judged his brothers more favorably. When people give each other the benefit of the doubt, everyone gets along much better.
In our story, a girl learns the value of giving the benefit of the doubt.
Leah Stein had only recently moved into the city. Although it was a big change from the small town where she had grown up, Leah was a friendly, outgoing girl who seemed to be able to adjust quickly. In fact, she had already started to make several friends in the new school.
She hit it off with one girl in particular named Debbie. Since they had first met it seemed like they had always known each other. Leah would excitedly tell her parents about things she did with her new friend, and she was especially looking forward to the coming Sunday when Debbie had agreed to come to her house so they could do homework together.
Sunday arrived and Leah was excitedly preparing for her friend's visit when the phone rang. Leah raced to pick it up.
"Hi ... sniff ... Leah?" said a hoarse voice on the other end. "This is Debbie... cough, cough ... I'm really sorry but I caught this terrible cold over the weekend. I ... sniff ... don't think I can make it today."
Leah was quick to assure her friend that she understood and wished her a speedy recovery. Feeling disappointed, Leah sat down alone and began to attack the homework assignment she had looked forward to doing with her friend.
An hour later Leah put down her pencil. "Whew," she said to herself. "That wasn't easy, but I'm finished." Then and there she decided to reward herself for her hard work with an ice cream from Benny's. Though she had never been there, all the kids in school were talking about how great it was, and Leah figured this was a good time to try it out.
She enjoyed the three-block stroll down the busy shop-filled avenue, so different from the quiet, almost empty streets of her old hometown. Finally arriving at the ice-cream shop, she got in line to place her order. As she stood in line, she glanced around at the packed tables. Suddenly she felt a shock. There sitting at one of the corner tables with a group of kids from her school was -- Debbie!
Although she was wearing her hair in a ponytail instead of the usual way, there was no mistaking that it was Debbie, who was supposed to be sick at home. Not only didn't she look sick, but she looked like she was having a great time, laughing and eating an ice cream cone.
Leah quickly turned on her heels and sped out of the ice-cream store before Debbie noticed her. "Some cold! She just wanted to dump me," muttered Leah angrily to herself as she practically raced home, hardly noticing the activity on the street that had so charmed her on the way there.
By the time she walked into her front door, her eyes were red and teary. Leah's dad, who had been raking the leaves, noticed his daughter's distress and follower her into the house.
"Leah, what's wrong?" he asked with concern.
"I thought Debbie was my friend and she made a fool out of me!" Leah blurted out and proceeded to tell him the whole story.
Mr. Stein nodded empathetically as he listened to his upset daughter. "And tomorrow as soon as I see her I'm going to tell her what I think of what she did!" concluded Leah, bitterly.
"I understand how you feel," said her father. "But maybe you should give Debbie a chance to explain herself first. From everything you've told us about her since you met her, Debbie doesn't seem like the kind of girl who would hurt somebody like that. Perhaps there's a good reason for what happened and a way to judge her favorably."
Leah thought about her father's words, but she just couldn't stop feeling angry with her friend.
The next day at school as Leah was walking down the hall she heard a familiar voice. "Hi Leah!" It was Debbie.
Leah was about to explode. But then she remembered her dad's words and thought twice. "There must be a good reason..." she told herself as she turned around silently in Debbie's direction.
Leah couldn't believe her eyes. She thought she was seeing double. There were two Debbies standing next to each other! One, holding a Kleenex, and next to her, another "Debbie" with a ponytail.
The first "Debbie" spoke up. "Hi ... cough cough," she said. "Sorry I couldn't make it yesterday. But the day in bed did me good. By the way, this is my twin sister Eve. I don't think you've met."
Leah swallowed. "Hi ... Eve," she managed to stutter. "Nice to meet you ... I think I've ... um ... seen you around."
Now Leah realized what had happened and felt very glad that she had decided to judge her friend favorably.
Q. How did Leah feel when she thought she saw Debbie in the ice-cream shop?
A. Leah was very upset because she thought her friend had lied to her when she said that she was sick.
Q. How about after she saw Debbie with her twin sister in school?
A. Leah realized that it was really Debbie's sister that she had seen at the ice-cream shop. She felt glad that she had tried to judge her friend favorably and had not just assumed she had lied.
Q. What do we gain when we give people the benefit of the doubt?
A. We gain a lot. First of all, we will feel much better about the people around us. Thinking that people are acting badly makes us have negative feelings about the world we live in. Thinking that people have good reasons for seemingly negative behavior improves our general outlook and helps us feel warmer towards others. Since people often tend to respond to us with similar feelings that we have toward them, this attitude could lead to much more peaceful relationships with the people in our lives. It also saves us many times from judging people incorrectly.
Q. Imagine you saw someone you knew running out of a camera store with a brand new camera in his hand and looking over his shoulder nervously. What would you think if you chose not to judge him favorably think was happening?
A. You might assume that this person has stolen the camera and was looking behind him to make sure he wasn't being followed.
Q. In the situation above -- what would you think if you chose to judge favorably what you saw happening?
A. You might think that perhaps the person had just bought a camera and was in such a hurry to catch a bus that he couldn't wait for a bag. He was rushing toward the bus stop, and glancing behind him to make sure the bus wasn't coming.
Q. Can you think of other examples of situations that could be interpreted either way and how we could give someone the benefit of the doubt?
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our Sages teach us that we "shouldn't judge somebody else until we've stood in his shoes." What does this statement teach us?
A. Even though people look more or less the same, each of us is really a "world unto himself." Our background, how we were brought up and our natural dispositions and character traits all make up who we are. It's only reasonable to assume that all this would lead two people to interpret and react to the same situation in two entirely different ways. For instance, a comment that wouldn't bother one person at all, someone else might find very insulting. If we keep in mind that we really don't know how other people are seeing things and what they are struggling with, it makes it much easier not to "judge" them guilty and instead to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Q. Is the concept of judging someone favorably teaching us that we should be non-judgmental and never judge another person's actions?
A. When we judge someone favorably, we look at an action that appears to be improper and try to think of reasons why this person might have been justified in doing what he did, or why we might not have seen things clearly. This is not the same as being non-judgmental which implies that there is no such thing as an improper action. In fact, the Torah clearly teaches that there are such things as improper actions which should be judged as such. However, we should try our utmost to give others the benefit of the doubt before we conclude that they acted improperly.