The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Erev Yom Kippur Drashah – September 29 2017

Rabbi Alan Lew, zichrono livracha, writes that the high holidays are a telescoping of a life journey into ten days.  On Rosh Hashana we speak about birth, the birthday of the world, the birth of humanity.  And on Yom Kippur we rehearse for our death; we wear white, symbolizing the shrouds we will be buried in, we don’t eat, we don’t have sex, we don’t adorn ourselves –we forego all the things that symbolize life and our ability to generate life.

Why do we do this each year?  I think perhaps the simplest reason is that when we telescope an entire life into ten days, we remind ourselves that life is short, that we are all temporary guests in this world, and that we need to think about and improve our lives now, because we don’t have unlimited time.

So I want to speak with you tonight about something that most of us, perhaps all of us do, something that has a profound effect on the way we relate both to close friends and allies, as well as to people we know less well and to our opponents.   Our vidui, our private confession, captures it:

Al chet she-chatanu l’fanecha b’honaat rei-ah, u’b’harhor halev.  For the sin we have committed before you by wronging our neighbor.  For the sin we have committed before you by thoughts of our hearts.

There is a way in which we wrong our neighbors, sometimes even our friends, with the thoughts of our hearts.  Dr. Alan Morinis of the Mussar Institute describes it this way.

“Most of us walk around engaged in unconscious, involuntary and hyper-critical judgement of other people… Do you realize that when you walk into a room, you tend to immediately judge everyone there?  And not just judge, which implies a kind of even-handed assessment, but actually seek out characteristics and behaviors that seem to be lacking?…

Think, for example, of someone who arrives late for a meeting (or it could be a prayer service or a social evening). What will be your first thought? Will it be, “It’s so disrespectful of someone to come late just because they can’t organize themselves to be on time,…”? Or will it be, “Maybe this person was up all night with a sick child, or maybe he or she would have been right on time if not for a last minute diversion to help someone with his burden”? Which comes to your mind first?”

We judge people, and very often in judging them, we misjudge them.  So we might see someone doing what looks like a questionable behavior, but instead of assuming that the person was making a mistake, or before finding out that there was an urgent situation that caused it, we’ve already assumed that they were intentionally and consciously behaving badly.   We make a negative judgement before we have all the facts.”

Why do we do it?  I want to suggest a few of many possible reasons.

First, in order to keep ourselves and our children safe, we have taught children not to trust people they don’t know.   But sometimes what begins as a useful caution can become a kind of indiscriminate skepticism, where we see negatives behind everything and we ascribe the worst motives to others’ actions.

Secondly, sometimes we judge people negatively in order to make ourselves feel better – when we attribute a negative to another person, we can look good by comparison.

Third, I think sometimes we judge others unfavorably because we don’t want to be what Israelis call a friar, a sucker.  We don’t want to be naïve about the world and come out looking like fools, so instead, we become cynical, and look for the angle in every situation, to protect ourselves from being suckered.

I’ve told this story before, but because it is such a powerful example of this dynamic, with your permission, I will tell it again.

It’s a story that I heard from Marion Wright Edelman, the former head of the children’s defense fund.  She told of a mother and baby who walked into a Women and Infant Care facility in Providence.  And the caseworker who was going to see the mother and child, noticed that the baby was drinking from a bottle with some red liquid in it.  The caseworker thought to herself:  “How could she give her baby Kool-Aid to drink?”  She was ready to scold the mother, but instead, she casually asked her:  what’s your baby drinking today?  And the mother said: it was getting toward the end of the month, and she had run out of money for formula or for milk.  She needed something to be able to give her baby.  And so she had gone into McDonald’s and taken the little packets of ketchup and mixed those with water, so she could feed the baby something more than water to drink.

What led the caseworker to jump to the conclusion about this mother and her choices for her baby’s nutrition?  Had she experienced another mother who neglected the nutritional needs of her baby, and she was not going to be taken in by this one?   We don’t know, and thankfully she did not wrongly accuse this mother.  But we learn again from her story that things are not always as they seem, and that it behooves us to give a person the benefit of the doubt, until we have information otherwise.

Useful caution that becomes indiscriminate suspicion, making ourselves feel better at someone else’s expense, trying to avoid being suckered,– these are all reasons why we might judge others negatively.

And there is one more.  Some people judge others negatively because they believe that most of the time, most human beings do have negative intentions, and that human nature is such that, given the opportunity, everyone will take advantage of everyone else.  But for those who believe that, when they encounter someone who acts in good faith, they will mistake good for bad, and misjudge those few people that they would agree had good intentions.

Unsurprisingly, from its earliest stages, Jewish tradition saw human nature very differently.  The Torah says in the book of Leviticus:  Lo taasu Avel bamishpat – Do not be unjust in judgement…b’tzedek tishpot amitecha – Judge your fellow human being fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15).

Rabbi Joshua ben Perahia goes further than the Torah.  He taught in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot:  hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf zechut, judge each person, not just fairly, but favorably. The term for favorable judgment, kaf zechut, actually brings to mind a visual of the scales of justice.  And it tells us that we should tip the scales toward the kaf zechut, the positive side, the favorable judgement.

One of the great strengths of the rabbinic tradition is to combine a realistic approach – the rabbis know that there are evil people in the world – with a simultaneous belief that, given the opportunity and the expectation to do the right thing, most often, most people will do the right thing.

The rabbis understood what one learns very quickly from working with children: namely, that expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.  If you assume the best about children, that they can be competent and responsible, they will most often rise to meet your expectations.   And, if you assume the worst about children, they will reward your expectations with their worst.   And I think the rabbis understood that, when they chose their position that, given the opportunity to do the right thing, most people will.

When we assume the worst about people, we communicate that message to them, even if we never say it. Ascribing negative intent is a silent sin.  But it is one that has a powerful impact.  You can’t assume negative things about someone and not have it affect your relationship with them in a serious way.

So how do we try to do better, so that we do not wrong our neighbors in our hearts?  First, I think we realize that how we judge people and how we interpret a situation is a choice.   If we want to hold on to the best possible interpretation until proven otherwise, we can.  If we want to attribute bad faith and negative intentions, we can do that too.

Secondly, we recognize that changing our propensity to judge negatively is not easy, because it’s something that we do all the time and often without thinking.  As Alan Morinis said about trying judging people fairly:    “It’s not something that can be wished for,”… “Without training you won’t do it. If it came to us naturally, we wouldn’t have to cultivate it.”

So how do we cultivate it, and how do we train ourselves to judge people favorably?

In developing this skill, humility is the starting point.   None of us have all the facts.  We are not God and we don’t have God’s perspective of being able to see any situation in its entirety.    The clearest human vision is still never complete.  Humility leads me to ask questions rather than make assumptions.  I put myself in the position of becoming a learner once again by seeking information, by asking a question, and informing myself, such that I can increase the odds of drawing the right conclusion.

Being humble and judging favorably are behaviors we have to cultivate; they require practice.  A few days ago, I happened upon a website called Planetary Jew.  The man behind this website wrote about being dan l’chaf zechut, giving people the benefit of the doubt, or assuming positive intent.

He wrote:  This was a teaching that touched my wife very deeply. And, in passing, she … told me a story of how she plays a game of dan l’kaf zechut, assuming positive intent, when she’s driving. It goes like this:

If someone cuts in front of her, for example, or blows their horn …  at her, instead of getting angry, she tries to think of all the possible reasons for that person acting so ungodly and rude… Like, maybe he’s on his way to the hospital for some kind of emergency. And not only that, but his kids don’t have a ride home from school. And even worse, he has to go to the bathroom. Or maybe he’s trying to make way for the car behind him, because someone in that car is violently ill.

And on and on she goes, thinking up excuse after excuse, some more plausible, and others less likely, until the anger fades and is replaced by a quiet sense of fun, and maybe even sanity.”

The game being described by this gentleman and his website, develops our ability to judge favorably.  The more you practice, even if it’s all very far-fetched in the beginning, the less far-fetched it gets, and the more open you become to positive possibilities with regard to others.

Rabbi David Wolpe once said that we judge ourselves by our intentions and we judge others by their actions.   And there is a great truth to that.  What practicing being dan l’chaf zechut/judging favorably does, is to stop our using one standard for ourselves and another for our friends:  we try to judge others by their intentions as well, and that means that until we know otherwise, we need to assume positive intent.

Civil society has suffered greatly by people not allowing for the possibility that our opponents also have good intentions, and by our being too quick to ascribe negative intentions to the people we disagree with.  There are some people with negative intentions, for sure. But most people are well-intended, and we do them and ourselves a great disservice when our default behavior is to judge them unfavorably.

This is one of those things that must begin at home.  It has to begin with us, and what we cultivate in ourselves, and how we train our children.  It is a choice.  We know where our tradition stands on this.  The question is only: will we do something about it?

For the next 24 hours, we will be interacting with lots of people we know and others we don’t know – yet. It is the perfect opportunity to practice being dan l’chaf zechut, judging others favorably and assuming positive intent.

If someone should knock into us by mistake, rather than marveling at how clumsy and uncaring they are, we can imagine that they aren’t feeling so well, or if they happen to be children, that maybe they needed to tell their parents something urgent about a sibling and that’s why they bumped into us.

Or perhaps we will see someone speaking on a cell phone, and instead of thinking that the person doesn’t care that keeping cell phones out of our public areas on Shabbat and holidays is important to our shul; instead, we entertain the possibility that they didn’t mean any disrespect at all, it’s simply that they didn’t know, or there was an emergency.

Now this is not an invitation for people to whip out their cell phones.  It really is important to us to be unplugged from technology on sacred days in shul.  But what this does mean is that if I or someone else sees someone on their phone, I’m challenging myself and others to give people the benefit of the doubt and not ascribe a wrong intention where there was more to the story.

Let’s see if there is a way to give each other the benefit of the doubt.  The more we do it, the more open we become to the real possibility that others are as well-intended as we hope we are.  And by recognizing that, when we judge them, we will judge them justly.  So may it be.


Hebrew College.