“One who judges another favorably is himself judged favorably.”
Today’s Daf Yomi discusses a principle I have tried to live my life by (and sometimes failed miserably): always assume positive intent. We are provided with several stories involving Rabbis in questionable circumstances. On the surface they might be engaging in behavior that would be worthy (with some embellishment) of coverage by the New York Post. But their students and fellow sages do not jump to conclusions and resist the urge to sell a salacious story to a tabloid.
The Sages imparted that “one who judges another favorably is himself judged favorably.” We are provided with an example of this exemplary behavior: a laborer worked for a homeowner for three years. He asked for his wages on Yom Kippur Eve so that could feed his wife and son. He asked for his wages three different times and received three brush-offs. When the homeowner first said he had no money, the worker asked to be paid in produce, then land, then animals, and finally cushions and a blanket. Each time the homeowner turned down the request. Someone who does not assume positive intent, would become angry over what would seem like an obvious attempt avoid paying the laborer his fair wages.
The patient laborer assumed positive intent each time he asked for his wages. He returned to his home penniless and hungry and without the resources to take care of his wife and son. But the homeowner knocked on his door, with the worker’s wages and three donkeys carrying baskets full of wine and sweets. After they shared the sweets and opened a bottle of wine, the homeowner asked the worker why he accepted his excuses. The worker articulated a rationale for each excuse, including assuming the homeowner had lent all his money to someone else, or had leased his land or tithed the produce to a priest, or his bedding was promised elsewhere. The homeowner breaks down when he hears this and confirms that was all true. He tells the worker: “And you, just as you judged favorably, so may God judge you favorably.”
We are told that a “certain matron whose company was kept by all the prominent people of Rome” was visited by Rabbi Yehoshua and his entourage of students who sought advice on government affairs. The Rabbi left his students at this woman’s doorway along with his phylacteries, entered her home and locked the door behind him. When he emerged, he immersed himself in a ritual bath which must have left some skeptics with a lot of questions. The text tells us that “here too, this was conduct that could arouse suspicion that something improper transpired.”
This incident turned out to be a test for the Rabbi’s students who he quizzed on how they interpreted his behavior. He asked if they suspected him of something untoward. The students, however, answered the Rabbi’s questions with an assumption of positive intent. When asked if they were suspicious that he locked the door when he entered this woman’s abode, they answered that they assumed he was engaged in a discreet government matter that required discretion. When asked about the immersion, the students said they assumed that the Rabbi needed to wash away any stray droplets that might have landed on him from the mouth of the woman.
If the world was comprised of more people like the laborer and students in today’s reading who assume positive intent, interpersonal conflicts would be greatly reduced. When someone bumps into you, perhaps he is preoccupied with solving a complex scientific problem that might result in a coronavirus vaccine, when one cuts in line in front of you perhaps he is anxious to check out at the grocery and get home to his sick wife, when one cuts you off in a business meeting, perhaps he is anxious to impress the boss. If we could only remember that everyone has their own preoccupations and challenges in life, there might be less strife among us. And we all could just get along if we assume positive intent.