Judging Others (Shoftim)
If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now. — Marcus Aurelius
The opening of the Torah reading of Shoftim starts with the prescriptive command of:
Judges and officers you shall place at all your gates, that God your Lord gives you to your tribes, and you shall judge the people a judgement of righteousness.
The Chidushei HaRim on Deuteronomy 16:18 explains the verse homiletically. He explains that “gates” is referring to the gates of our heart and “tribes” is referring to various attributes in our service of God, such as “the gates of awe,” “the gates of love,” “the gates of Torah,” “the gates of lovingkindness,” and so forth.
He elaborates, that if we were to take a deep look at ourselves, that if we were to judge ourselves honestly, we would realize that everything we have is from God. In essence, there is no attribute, skill, trait, or strength that we possess that isn’t from God. We need to realize that it’s all from God and not pat ourselves on the back for something that is basically a gift from God.
The Chidushei HaRim suggests that we need to keep that awareness and gratitude in mind when confronted by the failings of others. Whether as a judge or as a layman we come across people who don’t act appropriately. We compare ourselves to them and say to ourselves how terrible or lacking or inappropriate the behavior of the other is. We need to remember that our own comparatively better behavior is not something we can take full credit for, nor can we fully blame the other. This is reminiscent of Nachmanides’ famous advice to his son (Igeret HaRamban), to think of others as inadvertent sinners and oneself as a purposeful sinner, if one decides to start comparing oneself to others. Each of us has our own unique advantages and disadvantages.
The Chidushei HaRim proposes that instead of judging the disturbing person, one needs to show compassion. It may be that their behavior, sin, ill-manners, or affront is wrong, offensive and upsetting. However, the solution is not to think that one is in anyway better or superior to the other. Whatever apparent ethical advantage one has is not something that is entirely of our own making, but rather a gift from God. The answer is to remember that we are no better than the other and to think and demonstrate compassion rather than judgement, affection rather than disdain.
May we judge others favorably as much as possible.
To the incredible hospitality of the Nofei Aviv community. Thank you!