"Judge Every Person Favorably"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein





Dedicated in memory of our parents Jack Stone z"l and Helen and Benjamin Pearlman z"l
and in honor of Esther Stone by Gary and Ilene Stone




Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s “Varieties of Jewish Experience”
is now available in Israel!

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is now available in the USA!

Discounted prices for VBM readers. 

Details here: http://www.haretzion.org/torah/yeshiva-publications.






"Judge Every Person Favorably"

Translated by Kaeren Fish



When Yosef's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "Perhaps Yosef will hate us, and pay us back all the evil which we did to him." So they sent word to Yosef… "Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brother"… and Yosef wept as they spoke to him. (Bereishit 50:15-17)


Rashi (ad loc.) comments that the cause of the brothers' anxiety was that Yosef stopped inviting them to dine with him. The source for this explanation is a dispute between Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Levi as recorded in Bereishit Rabba (100:8). Rabbi Levi maintains that so long as Yaakov was alive, Yosef would invite his brothers to dine with him, and Yaakov would place him at the head of the table, rather than Reuven (the eldest of the brothers) or Yehuda (the future king). Now that Yaakov had died, Yosef felt it would no longer be proper for him to sit alone at the head of the table, and he therefore stopped inviting them. Rabbi Yitzchak teaches that what prompted their anxiety was that during the journey the brothers undertook to bury Yaakov in Canaan, Yosef took himself off to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him so many years previously. Concerning both of these events, Rabbi Tanchuma teaches, "His intentions were altogether for the sake of Heaven, but they [the brothers] perceived them otherwise, and said, 'Perhaps Yosef will hate us…'"


According to Rabbi Levi, Yosef faced a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, now that Yaakov was no longer there to place him at the head of the table, it was no longer proper for him to sit there. On the other hand, he was the ruler of Egypt, and from the point of view of the Egyptians he must uphold a certain public image of authority. In his desire for the conflict with his brothers to be forgotten, he feared creating a situation where they would once again view him as putting himself above them. Yosef's solution was to evade the problem by no longer inviting his brothers.


However, he failed to take into account how they would perceive this. From their perspective, they had every reason to believe that the relations between them were still fraught and fragile. Indeed, this is borne out by Rabbi Yitzchak's explanation: the pit was a site with traumatic associations for Yosef. It is likely that throughout his life he carried the memory of the fear and suffering he had experienced there, as a slave at the mercy of others. In order to take care of this unfinished psychological business and get closure, Yosef wished to return to the pit as a free man, to shake off the trauma: "His intentions were purely for the sake of Heaven." But here, too, he failed to consider how his behavior would be interpreted by his brothers: "Now he's remembered the pit! We thought it was all over, but he obviously hasn't forgotten…" Therefore the verse tells us, "And they said, Perhaps Yosef will hate us…"


Yosef's reaction to the announcement of the brothers concerning Yaakov's "request" for mercy follows the same pattern. He weeps. He had believed that all was forgotten, that his actions as a boy were no longer part of anyone's memory, since he had been so generous towards his family as ruler of Egypt. He had believed that now there were good, strong relations between himself and his brothers. Suddenly he realizes that this was an illusion: not only had they not forgotten, but even Yaakov had not forgotten! The illusion is shattered; everything starts to surface. The grudge and the suspicions are still there.


All of this upheaval in the relations between the brothers comes about as the result of a mutual lack of understanding, a lack of respect for each other, and – most of all – a lack of trust in each other. Had Yosef really believed in his close relations with his brothers, he would have summoned them and discussed the problem with them. However, the reality is that the brothers do not fully trust each other and do not yet regard each other as acting solely "for the sake of Heaven." This is the source of the tension and anxiety we encounter in our parasha.


The Gemara (Shabbat 127a-b) teaches:


Rabbi Assi said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: There are six things whose benefits a person reaps in this world, while their reward awaits him in the World to Come. They are: showing hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, meditation in prayer, arising early to the beit midrash, raising one's children to Torah study, and judging one's fellow favorably.


The Gemara points out that in the Mishna (Pe'ah 1:1), the list of activities whose benefits are reaped in this world while the reward awaits one in the World to Come is somewhat different: honoring parents, acts of kindness, and making peace between people. How are these two lists to be reconciled? One of the answers proposed is that the six items enumerated by Rabbi Assi in the name of Rabbi Yochanan are included within the three categories set forth in the Mishna. Rashi explains:


One who judges his friend favorably is included in the category of those who bring peace, for when one decides [to view his friend's behavior] in a positive light and says, "He did not deliberately sin against me in this act; he must have been forced [by outside circumstances to act in this way], or his intentions were good" – he thereby creates peace between them.


Failure to judge one's fellow favorably creates a problem on two levels: there is the narrow view, which concerns the personal offense experienced by the individual involved; and there is the broader view of the social ramifications. A society built in such a way that no one can rely on anyone else, and everyone is always regarded with suspicion, is a defective society. A society in which doors are always locked is quite unlike a society in which no one ever locks his door. The Sifra (Kedoshim, 2) explains the mitzva, "With righteousness shall you judge your fellow" (Vayikra 19:15), in two ways: as addressing the judge, and as addressing society. Just as the importance of having judges exercising righteous judgment is clearly apparent to and understood by all, so it is also important that each individual judge his fellow man favorably. The concept of "healthy suspicion" has no source in Chazal's teachings. Admittedly, it is sometimes necessary, but our aspiration should always be to strengthen social relations and to achieve a situation where there is no suspicion, only mutual respect. That is a society that lives in true peace.


This idea has ramifications for our relations with secular Jews, as well as Reform and Conservative groups. Along with the justified and necessary opposition to their views, is it not proper that we refrain from rejecting outright the possibility that they are truly motivated "for the sake of Heaven"? Must we always insist on accusing all of them of acting out of personal interests, and viewing only ourselves as acting "for the sake of Heaven"? This approach is neither true nor healthy. "Judge every person favorably" (Avot 1:6).