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Shoftim: Being Honest without being Naïve!

Published on Friday October 15th, 2021

The Torah commands us: "Be honest with Hashem, your G-d." Rashi explains that one must accept what Hashem gives us without trying to predict the future. We must accept everything with love and integrity.

The Chofetz Chaim deduced the following from this passuk. It is written that a person must act with integrity before Hashem, but not with regard to others. In relationships with others, the person must show a lot of wisdom and thought and must not allow themselves to get deceived by a questionable person.

He brings as an example Yaakov Avinou, who is called "ish tam" and who, at the same time acted cunningly with his relative Lavan. One day, several Bnei-Torah complained to the Chofetz Chaim that they had been cheated by dishonest traders on a large sum of money. He told them this passuk and he pointed out to them that, having spent several years in Yeshiva, they had become accustomed to behaving with temimus towards Hashem. Their mistake, on the other hand, was to think that it was possible to behave with tmimut towards others as well.

The Chofetz Chaim's lesson seems quite logical, but it must be reconciled with the mitzvah of ''betzedek tishpot et amitecha''. This mitzvah teaches us that we must try to judge others favorably, even if we have the impression that they has acted incorrectly. How can we judge people favorably while being suspicious of them? One could simply answer that we must, in our mind, judge the other in favorably, but at the same time, we must be careful to take the necessary precautions to avoid suffering damage, in case this person is dishonest . There are two problems in this approach: first of all, it is almost impossible to adopt such a contradictory attitude towards one and the same person - how can we be expected to judge each other favorably in all sincerity, while treating each other with suspicion at the same time? On the other hand, it seems difficult to understand that the Torah can command us to give the benefit of the doubt to people who we should have good reason to consider with suspicion.

The Rishonim write that the requirement to judge others favorably is not uniform, but that it takes into account the different categories of people. There is the "tzadik", the "benoni", the "rasha" and the "eino makiro" (the unknown). The tzaddik is the one who almost never commits a sin - he should be judged favorably even if his comportment lends itself strongly to be interpreted negatively. The benoni is the one who, as a rule, avoids doing aveirot, but stumbles from time to time. We must judge him favorably in cases where the action can be perceived equally negatively and positively, but when his actions appear negative, we do not have to give him the benefit of the doubt. The rasha sins regularly and that is why we are not obliged to judge him favorably, even when his comportment seems positive. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yona rules that one must judge him unfavorably! The eino makiro is the one we do not know - there is no obligation as to how to judge him.

The difficulty regarding the above gedarim is that the Torah or Chazal do not make any reference to it - the Torah makes no difference between the various groups of people, it merely asks us to judge our brethren favorably, which implies that this obligation applies equally to every Jew. Where did the Rishonim deduce such chilukim between different types of people?

My rav, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, explains that the mitzvah of judging others favorably does not mean that there is an obligation to consider each action in a positive way, irrationally, but it asks us to judge others logically, reasonably and fairly, instead of judging others harshly, unfairly. But the Torah reminds us that this is wrong, but without making us illogical. Thus, the reason why the Rishonim established several gedarim regarding different groups of people is clear. As far as the tzaddik is concerned, even if he does something that seems to be wrong, it is quite normal to assume that he did nothing wrong. For example, if you see someone who is very strict about kosher food, enter a non-kosher restaurant, you will naturally assume that he is not going there to eat a non-kosher, but rather for a non food related reason. Even if you do in fact see him putting food in his mouth, it is more likely that he needed to eat to save his life and that he was thus allowed to eat this non-kosher food.

On the other hand, when a rasha does something positive, it seems logical that there is a negative way to interpret his behavior. The same reasoning applies to the other categories - when common sense dictates that the person should be favorably judged, the Torah instructs us to do so, but when it is not, there is no imperative of the Torah to grant the benefit of the doubt and there is even sometimes an obligation to judge one's neighbor negatively.

According to this explanation, we can reconcile the mitzvah to judge favorably and the teaching of the Chofetz Chaim that one should not be naive. The Torah does not ask us to be naïve, but rather to be realistic and it sometimes tells us that we must judge the other unfavorably. Therefore, when, for example, we trade with people, the mitzvah of "betzedek tishpot" teaches us not to be naive, but rather to consider the other justly and accurately. As noted above, it is important to remember that doing so is not an easy task - our natural tendency may be to judge others unfairly. It is an wrong, says the Torah; and we must try to treat people fairly.

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