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Este Stollman

Of Minutes and Men

I was chatting with a friend today about how my new dermatologist reminds me of my dad in that he seemed like a very nice and frum older man with many years of experience. Following his recommendation for a minor procedure, I asked him if there would be a scar to which he answered no. And since it was my face, I then asked what’s the worse it could be? He gave me a medical term, explaining that it never happens and won’t happen to me.

Besides for the doctor’s age and kind features, what most strongly conjured up the image of my dad during this initial visit was the following, as he clarified his answer to my question: “What should I say though? HaShem’s really in charge, not me. I’m only his shaliach. So maybe I shouldn’t say that nothing will happen, but it probably won’t happen from my experience.”

His sense of humility and emunah in being only a messenger for healing, albeit a successful doctor in his own right, was both poignant and humbling to me. I thought of my father right there and then, suddenly warming up to my brand new dermatologist, even though only one minute had passed since he had stepped through the door. Nonetheless, I truly felt like giving the man a hug and I didn’t even know him! It was such a strange feeling!

When I recounted all of this to my friend, I mused how we consciously or subconsciously make associations when meeting people, and often times this influences whether we like them. As we recited in the weeks between Pesach and Shavuos and as many of us recite during the summer, (Pirkei Avos 1:6): הווי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות.

To be honest, I was never fond of this value to judge others favorably —what if it’s a bit of a stretch? What if it’s pretty clear to me that what they’re doing is wrong? Why do I have to? Maybe they don’t deserve it! These were some of my thoughts, despite knowing of distinctions between someone you knew to be righteous, and wicked. Regardless, back then in my youth (I say that humorously even though it was many years ago), I just didn’t want to exercise that religious muscle of mine. However, the more people I started to meet, get close to or simply watch from a distance, the more I understood that people aren’t generally chalked up to be who they are in our initial impressions.

To clarify: If you see a kid forcefully pushing down another child at the playground, you know that he or she probably has an aggressive tendency that can be corrected with the right parenting skill. That’s called an accurate first impression. So rather, what I am talking about here are the more fine, grey areas in life when people do things big or small that we call wrong—like someone throwing a bunch of bottles in the regular trash (if recycling is your pet peeve) or snapping at one’s spouse—and then drawing a conclusion on his or her whole person, based on that one incident you didn’t like due to a particular bias or association.

Indeed, it takes a person of self awareness (and desire) to go back to that experience and observation and make some changes. To note, not all self-work requires therapy but rather more exclusively, introspection. All of the kabbalists and ascetics of the past retreated into the forests or mountains for a session of hisbodedus, free of charge and without the help of another individual. We can do this too, whether we call it Meditation, Speaking it out with a Friend, or Five Minutes Alone on the Couch. As the Jewish saying goes, אין דבר העומד בפני הרצון. Or as the expression goes so musically worded, If there’s a will there’s a way.

In this light, הווי דן את כל האדם is not only a dictum to prevent our unnecessary accusations and misunderstanding of others; it is a call for character betterment. Interestingly, the source of suspecting the innocent, or חושד בכשרים, originates in the Biblical episode in which Gd commands Moshe to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. Moshe responds that he does not want to carry out this mission because as he told Gd, the Jewish people would not trust in him, והן לא יאמינו לי.

As the Gemara writes in Shabbos 97a, He who suspects the innocent, Gd punishes him physically. In this light, HaShem punished Moshe with tzara’as for misjudging his people, whom Gd said would eventually believe. Ironically maybe Moshe was being punished for not having enough faith himself, in the process and in others. On the other hand, another Tanakhic figure named Esther was just the opposite: When she was approached by Mordechai to save the Jewish people, she also hesitated; but here it was because she didn’t have enough faith in herself in being able to accomplish this mission.

In this way, viewing both others and oneself in a negative light—being חושד one’s own person or one’s next door neighbor—can be equally as crippling. Take Moshe for example: If he had acted on his hesitation and insecurities (as any quick accusation of others is usually a reflection of ourselves), who knows how much longer our people’s 210 years of slavery would have lasted or what the rest of the Biblical narrative would have looked like?

In the same vein, what would have happened to the Jewish people if Esther had continued to misjudge her ability to successfully approach Achashverosh (within the thirty day waiting period before her next royal meeting)? Where would we be if she had given into her fear, even though Mordechai assured Esther that the Jewish people would be saved through another channel lest she failed to go through with the task.

We all know though, as Mordechai breathed in the same sentence as his guarantee, that Esther was destined for this mission, that maybe the only reason she was queen was for this very moment in time! If not for Queen Esther and overcoming her internal obstacle, the Persian exile could have extended decades later: The shuddering idea of a murderous decree on all Jewish lives would have become a true reality!

In this light, הווי דן is not just a cry to overcome our inner negativity; it’s a mental exercise to see beyond our own insecurities, relationship patterns, and associations with certain behaviors and traits; and instead, to find the זכות in that person. Very often, we observe a minute in another’s life and write that person off as a bad parent, an explosive child, or a demeaning spouse (or all of the above!)—which all might be true at the end of the day. The exercise here, though, is to look into ourselves and question whether our gut-impression is accurate or just a reflection of our own lives and struggles.

How frequently do we criticize people the minute they walk through the door just because they look more or less religious than ourselves? How silly is it that we so quickly jump onto the Stereotyping Steamboat or Exclusion Express before we get to really know a person just because they remind us of something or someone we don’t like?

As simple as it sounds, we can’t really tell how good or bad an individual is based on being “a little more to the left” or “a little more to the right” than us. Such a hysterical and meaningless expression! A little to the right, a little to the left… It’s as if all the people in our lives are at one great wedding and a neurotic photographer just can’t get it perfect enough—Just take the stupid picture already!

As a whole, we must learn to drop our disparities and what looks like our weaknesses and embrace each other. After all this is a family portrait. We are one people, or as our cultural expression goes, a ganze mishpocheh!

So the next time you raise your eyebrows at your coworker, casual friend or fellow shopper in the same grocery aisle, as her kids precariously hang out of the wagon while grabbing cereal boxes off the shelf, ask yourself this: Is it really that bad? And, is it her or is it me?

Now, it’s not creativity we’re looking for in this exercise; it’s the thinking out of our own confined boxes that is crucial. In other words, when I approach the principle of הווי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות, I am not talking about an Oh-he-must-be-helping-her-not-get-a-mosquito-bites-by-slapping-a-bug-off-her-face approach to different people and scenarios but more like an Oh… moment where we say, “Maybe I have such a strong, unexplainable dislike of her because her coiffed hair, her strong perfume, the way she rolls her r’s reminds me of Person A from my life.” What we must do, if we want to surpass our natural inclinations, is overcome this handicap to get to know the real human being standing there right in front of us. In order to lead truly meaningful lives, we must shed light on our status quo, instead of accepting it and shuffling onto the next person, the next date, the next friend.

In the merit of taking a second glance into our observations of others, may HaShem remove the magnifying glasses and clown house mirrors of others and see our people for who we are, רחמנים ביישנים וגומלי חסד. In this merit, as we sing in the piyut on Rosh Hashanah, may the angels be our סניגור, or supporter in front of HaShem rather than our קטיגור, our prosecutor, in seeing our ultimate delivery from this hellish exile.

About the Author
Este Stollman is a Yeshiva English teacher and has a Master of Arts in Jewish History from Touro Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She has a small sushi-making party business and lives in Lakewood, NJ with her husband and children.
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