From at least the era of Saadia Gaon (10th century C.E.), it has been the time-honored custom of the Jewish people to study one chapter a week of the tractate Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) on each of the six Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuos. [The tractate is comprised of six chapters. However, the prevalent custom nowadays is to continue studying a chapter a week all through the summer months until Rosh Hashanah, thus completing the entire Pirkei Avos a number of times.]
Pirkei Avos is unique among the tractates of the Talmud. While all the other tractates focus primarily on clarifying the Halachah (Jewish law) in all areas of the Torah, only Avos deals exclusively with the Hashkafas HaTorah (Jewish philosophical worldview) of our Sages, with their lessons for life, and with the morals and ethics they wished to impart to their students and to all of us.
According to our tradition, the 49-day period between Passover, when our ancestors left Egypt, and Shavuos, when they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah, was a time of spiritual preparation and growth, as the Jewish people wanted to make sure they were on the right level to appreciate the Torah they were about to receive. As such, these weeks are the perfect time to learn Pirkei Avos, the study of which is sure to enhance and elevate our understanding of G-d, His Torah and ourselves.
This coming Shabbos afternoon, Jews all around the world will begin to study the first chapter of Pirkei Avos, either in a class taught by their Rabbi/Rebbetzin/teacher or on their own.
One of the more famous teachings recorded in Pirkei Avos (1:6) comes from Yehoshua ben Perachyah. He taught that we should judge every person favorably. Although this obligation has very specific parameters as delineated by Halachah (Jewish law), on a simple level it means that when we see someone do or say something that bears either a positive or negative interpretation, we should try to interpret the act in a positive light.
The Talmud in Shabbos 127b discusses the obligation to judge others favorably and relates the following story to illustrate just how far a person can (and should) go to view others favorably:
There was a person who came down from the Upper Galilee and hired himself out to an employer in the South [of Israel] for three years. At the end of the three years, on the eve of Yom Kippur, he said to his master, “Give me my wages and I will go and support my wife and my children.” “I have no money,” replied the master. “Then give me produce,” the worker said. “I don’t have any,” the master answered. “Well, then give me a piece of land.” – “I don’t have any land.” “Then give me cattle.” “I have none.” “Give me pillows and bedding.” “I don’t have that either.” So he slung his bundle over his shoulder and went home, deeply dejected.
After Yom Kippur, the master took the man’s wages in his hand along with three donkeys, one loaded with food, one loaded with drink, and the third loaded with all kinds of sweets, and went to the worker’s house. After they had eaten and drunk together, he gave him his wages for the three years. “When you asked me, ‘Give me my wages,’ and I answered you, ‘I have no money,’ what did you suspect me of?” the master asked. The man replied, “I thought, perhaps you came across a good deal and had used all your money to buy all the inexpensive goods.” “And when you asked for cattle and I said that I had none, what did you suspect me of then?” the master asked. “I thought, perhaps you had rented the animals to someone [and were unable to give them to me],” was the reply. “When you asked me for land, and I said that I had no land, what did you suspect me of?” “I thought, perhaps you had leased it to others” “And when I told you that I had no produce, what did you suspect me of?” “I thought that perhaps they were not yet tithed [and therefore unusable].” “And when I said that I had no pillows and bedding, what did you suspect me of then?” “I said to myself that perhaps you had consecrated all your belongings to Heaven.”
“I swear,” the master exclaimed. “That is exactly what happened. I had made a vow to give all my possessions to the Holy Temple because of my son Hyrcanus who was not learning Torah. But when I went to my friends in the South, they absolved me of all my vows. [And that is why I can pay you now.] And as far as you are concerned, just as you judged me favorably, so may the Al-mighty judge you favorably!”
The Sfas Emes points out a major difficulty with the blessing that the employer gave the worker at the end of the story. He asks that it is one thing for a human being like the worker in the story - who was doubtful as to whether his employer was lying or not - to “judge him favorably” and to give him the benefit of the doubt. But what does the employer mean that “the Al-mighty should judge you favorably”? After all, G-d knows everything and therefore has no doubt at all about what was done, so how can judging favorably and giving the benefit of the doubt apply to Him at all?!
To answer this question we need to understand that the obligation to judge others favorably applies not only in cases where we have actual doubt as to someone else’s words or actions. It also applies where we know for certain that what someone did was wrong and sinful. We can still judge him favorably by thinking to ourselves that while this person certainly said or did a bad thing, he might have had an incredibly difficult challenge and struggle with his yetzer hara (evil urge) in this area that we might not have.
The mitzvah to judge others favorably obligates us to have compassion on others – so that even if they don’t pass the test that G-d gave them, and they commit sinful acts, we can still judge them less harshly, bearing in mind that they might have a greater temptation to sin or worse character traits than we have, which is why they succumbed to their yetzer hara and failed their test.
With this we can appreciate what it means that G-d judges someone favorably. It doesn’t mean that He is doubtful about whether we did a good or bad act and judges us as if we did good. Rather, it means that even when we sin and mess up, G-d takes into account the tremendous yetzer hara and major challenges that He knows He gave us, and has compassion on us in judgment.
What a different world it would be if we would be less quick to judge others negatively – even (and especially) those people who have really bad character traits and who do wrong to us and to others – as we bear in mind that they have difficult spiritual challenges and urges that we might not even know about.
May we all merit to also see the good in others – and to see the bad in others in a more compassionate way – so that G-d will act to us in kind. Amen.
[Sources: Ein Yaakov: The Ethical and Inspirational Teachings of the Talmud -translated by Avraham Yaakov Finkel, Aronson Publishing.]