We are living through a very complicated and anxiety producing time. We are constantly needing to discern what is real versus what is fabricated; what are objective facts and what is the product of propaganda. It often feels like social media and news media is luring our attention to a constantly moving multiple ring circus of scandals and sensationalism while basic human rights and decency are being chipped away and decomposing at a dizzying and frightening speed. This upheaval in the world is affecting our inner lives. In my rabbinate I am experiencing more people suffering from anxiety and exhibiting a lack of patience and compassion for one another than ever before. I am also experiencing people who are reaching out to the synagogue to find a sense of community and a place to search for meaning in their lives in light of this emerging shift that is occurring in our world.
In Pirke Avot; The ethical teachings of our Ancestors/Sages, there is a teaching from Joshua ben Perchiah a 2nd century BCE sage that teaches about judging others favourably The teaching is “Dan et kol adam l’kaf zechut” When you judge (assess) people, tip the balance in their favour. Give others the benefit of the doubt. I believe that at this juncture in history this is a positive first step to finding our collective path to decency and compassion. We are fed a steady diet of fear and lack. There is a lack of environmental quality, a lack of economic opportunity, especially for young people, a lack of personal safety and security… These perceived lacks fuel the construct of seeing others as the source of the problem and generating fear that eventually gets expressed as hate. Living in this pressure cooker makes everyone a bit on edge and this permeating anxiety is fertile ground for being judgemental.
There are times when we must invoke our courage and righteously resist but those moments need considerable understanding and intentionality. It takes self awareness and patience to judge others favourably.
We learn in Torah that when there is an objective need to give someone a rebuke we must do it from a place of love. Which means that we must first check ourselves to ensure we are not rebuking another from a place of envy or jealousy, or out of a need for revenge. One way to check yourself is to find the place within self that is capable of doing the same action that requires a rebuke to be given in the first place. My hope is that when we experience others’ actions or words at first, we suspend judgement and try to understand the origins of negative behaviours. It is also important to separate behaviour from the person because this allows for change and repair. There is an increasing sense of fear and separation that is affecting us all. If we are to transcend fear and find a path to unity and shalom it requires understanding and understanding begins by judging others favourably.
Rabbi Harry Brechner is Rabbi of Congregation of Emanu-El in Victoria, B.C.