The exhortation of Pirkei Avot to “judge all people favorably,” which echoes the biblical verse to “judge your friend justly,” urges us to look beneath the surface of behaviors and believe that people are better than they may seem at first glance.
The 19th century Lithuanian commentator Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin found an application of this principle in this week’s Torah reading. At the conclusion of the creation of the mishkan (tabernacle), Moses instructs that all of its components be brought to him for inspection. If Moses was indeed the most modest of humans, as the Bible states, why did he insist that these heavy items be dragged to him, rather than simply making the rounds himself to inspect them? Rabbi Diskin responds that even leaders must be given the benefit of the doubt and Moses did not act out of self-importance or lack of consideration. Rather, he knew that each craftsman would hope to have Moses visit his site first, and would be crushed to be one of the later stops. To spare feelings, he invited the craftsmen to visit him, where it would be first come, first served.
We see another application illustrating this point of judging favorably. The building of the mishkan was completed in the Hebrew month of Kislev. Through the next three months, Teves, Shevat, and Adar, they kept on building it and taking it apart. Finally, in the month of Nissan, the mishkan was erected and kept up. Why was it necessary to have a three-month delay? Why was it not erected immediately after its completion? The midrash explains because Hashem wanted the merriment and celebration of the dedication of the mishkan to intertwine with the birthday of Yitzchak, our patriarch who was born on the first of Nissan. Here, we see another illustration that at first glance it is a little peculiar to delay the erection of the mishkan, but when investigating further one sees remarkable cleverness.
This lesson is very important in life as well. We are always told “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Along similar lines, we may never judge people until we understand their background and where they are coming from. There are many people in the world who are often neglected. They have so much to offer, but often they do not feel heard or understood.
There are countless stories of people who had difficult upbringings either because they had negative yeshiva experiences or homes where tolerance wasn’t practiced. Other times, people grow up in homes where practicing Judaism was not a focus in their lives. People in each of these cases, if related to with the proper warmth, non-judgmental attitude, and education according to their own levels, have the ability to make tremendous strides in Jewish life and ultimately become prominent members of the Jewish community.
As the director of an organization involved in outreach, a story that comes to mind is of a family who became interested in attending classes through our organization. They attended classes in areas of Jewish thought and Jewish law and were very anti-religion and anti-Orthodox. They fought every law and argued every point. This went on for a period of about 10 years. Nobody ever had a thought that these people would ever come around and embrace Orthodox lifestyles. The son was in seventh grade and befriended a kid on the block who was Orthodox. After a short time, the son told his parents he wanted to go to yeshiva. The parents embraced the idea and one year later became fully observant of the traditional customs and laws. The boy said at his bar mitzvah that if it were not for the persistence and patience of people involved in outreach, he and his family would not be there celebrating the occasion of his bar mitzvah. The parents went on to be prominent lay leaders of a heavily Orthodox community. He became the president of the synagogue and they have remained committed Jews since then.
We must look beyond the surface and try to find the “neshama” (soul) behind all people, educate them, mold them, and bring out their true light so everyone can benefit from them. When everyone amongst the Jewish people contributes and adds to society, we become a truly unified people and then we become a people, a nation that is ready to accept and greet the moshiach.