When the late Rabbi Shimon Schwab (the renowned leader of the famous Breuer's community in Washington Heights, New York) was a pulpit rabbi in Baltimore many years ago, he would occasionally travel to New York for various rabbinical duties.
When the late Rabbi Shimon Schwab (the renowned leader of the famous Breuer's community in Washington Heights, New York) was a pulpit rabbi in Baltimore many years ago, he would occasionally travel to New York for various rabbinical duties. Once, while walking through Grand Central Station, he saw the gabbai of his congregation eating in one of the station's non-kosher restaurants. Rabbi Schwab relied on this man's religious integrity and commitment for many of his synagogue's important functions. Yet he now sees this same man eating clearly non-kosher food! How could he ever bring himself to trust this man again? Rabbi Schwab knew there must be some explanation for this man's behavior, but he couldn't imagine what that rationale might be. What would you say in a situation like this?
This week's Torah portion describes the ill-fated mission of the spies sent by the Jewish people to the land of Israel. The Midrash tells us that throughout their forty-day visit to the Holy Land, in every city to which the spies traveled, they observed that the townspeople were constantly involved in funerals and eulogies. Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, points out that twelve foreigners inspecting strategic battle locations are difficult to overlook. If the spies had been discovered, the locals would have certainly executed them. In order to protect the spies, Hashem miraculously caused some of the natives to die so as to preoccupy the townspeople with funerals and eulogies. Had they focused upon this miracle, the spies would have had the greatest evidence that Hashem supervises over His people, which would have encouraged the Jewish people to enter the land of Israel.
However, upon returning to report to the nation, the spies complained that the land "devours its inhabitants" (Numbers 13:32). Since they constantly saw funerals, they concluded that the land was uninhabitable. Logically, it doesn't make sense that people should constantly be dying throughout the land. Furthermore, had there been frequent deaths everywhere, one would expect that to have dulled the inhabitants' mourning and pain, at least to the point that they would have noticed a group of suspicious foreigners. Yet, despite the evidence pointing towards Hashem's direct intervention in causing the inhabitants to die specifically in the places where the spies where currently visiting, the spies still looked aside from this great miracle and instead used it as proof that the land was uninhabitable. Why? Because they focused on the bad. For whatever reason (which is a topic for a different discussion), the spies were trying to find fault in the land. To support their claim, they not only failed to recognize and appreciate Hashem's assistance, but they focused on the bad to draw false conclusions. They then proceeded to use those conclusions to slander Hashem's Promised Land, delaying the nation's entry into Israel by forty years and directly leading to our exile today.
The Chovos HaLevavos, a classic work of mussar (Jewish ethics), quotes a story about a wise man walking with his disciples. As they passed the decaying carcass of a dog, the students commented about its foul odor. The wise man responded, "But look how white its teeth are." Even on the decomposing animal, there was something positive to focus on. So instead of dwelling on the disgusting smell, the wise man concentrated on the good - the whiteness of its teeth. The Chovos HaLevavos continues to explain that although there is no commandment that forbids degrading dead animals, the wise man was impressing upon his students to train themselves to focus on the good in any given situation, lest they accustom themselves with speaking negatively. We must all work to train ourselves in this way.
Rabbeinu Yonah, a classic commentator, writes that a person who instead always focuses on the negative will jump to incriminate the moment he witnesses an action that appears incorrect. The Torah teaches us (Leviticus 19:15) that the proper approach in these situations is to judge others favorably - to grant them the benefit of the doubt. We must mentally create a backdrop to the situation which explains why this person's actions are justified. However, a person who focuses on the bad tends not to judge positively, instead almost automatically incriminating the person he sees doing the negative action. Then, based on this hasty and often incorrect conclusion, he badmouths the person, now spreading false lashon hara (slander).
This is what happened with the spies. When they saw people dying, they could have judged the situation favorably, as Hashem's kind way of easing their task, or negatively, as a result of inhospitable living conditions. They chose the bad, prompting them to slander the land of Israel, which prolonged the Jewish people's journey in the desert and precipitated our own exile today.
The lesson that we can learn from this is the importance of looking for the good in every situation. Often, we rush to incriminate others, focusing only on the bad in what we saw. But we must train ourselves otherwise - to think through the situation with greater depth (and sometimes creativity) to grant him the benefit of the doubt. For example, if I see someone walk in late to synagogue one morning, I should not jump to conclude that he is lazy and could not pull himself out of bed. Rather, I should innovate another reason for his tardiness. Maybe his car broke down, maybe his child was sick, or maybe his alarm clock was accidentally reset. There are hundreds of reasons why he might have been late. Why, even in the privacy of my own thoughts, should I assume the one that places him in a bad light? It is very likely that we see a correct action for which we just don't understand the larger picture. We must therefore make use of this mitzvah to judge others favorably.
Rabbi Schwab knew that his gabbai was a righteous and trustworthy person. But how could he justify this man eating non-kosher food? The story concludes that Rabbi Schwab returned to New York a week later for another meeting. During that time, he was also scheduled to visit someone in the hospital. Upon entering the room, Rabbi Schwab was surprised to see the gabbai lying there in the bed. They began talking and the gabbai explained that he was having trouble with ulcers which, if food is unavailable, can sometimes be life threatening. "You wouldn't believe some of the places where I've found myself having to eat!" he added.
Had we jumped to conclusions, we would have written this man off. But by looking deeper, we see that he was only eating there to save his life and was fully justified. So what right do we have to assume otherwise, when we don't see the whole picture? We must train ourselves to only focus on the good in what we see. This will lead us to judge others favorably, and will also limit our lashon hara. By doing this, may we bring an end to the long exile caused by these very sins.
Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York.
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