We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, a time when the tradition charges us with examining our deeds, preparing ourselves for the great Day of Judgment coming on Rosh Hashanah. As part of this process we are called on to judge ourselves, find where we may have been lacking over the past year.
Which, for most people, is a change of pace, since we’re usually far more busy judging others than judging ourselves.
In the process of judging, we “weigh” various factors. This week’s Torah reading Ki Tetze, includes a commandment about how we are to weigh things:
“You must have full and just weights and full and just measures if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you ”Deuteronomy 25:15
The Hebrew reads “even shleimah v’tzedek,” a weight that is full and just.
Why the redundancy? If your weight is a full measure – if your one kilo weight actually weighs one kilo – doesn’t that mean it’s a just weight?
The Talmud (Bava Batra 88b) explains that it’s not enough to have a full measure. It’s not enough that your one kilo weight is a full kilo. If you are shopkeeper measuring out goods to your customers, the Talmud tells us that your one kilo weight should weigh a little bit more than a kilo. You are required to give the customer a little something extra. It’s not enough, God forbid, that you don’t cheat your customers—you have to tilt the scales slightly in the customer’s favor. Maybe this teaching from the Talmud is the source for something you’ll often see if you go to a kosher deli. If the counterman is slicing some meat for you, after they have sliced off the amount you requested, they will often throw in another little slice for free. A little extra.
Most of us aren’t shopkeepers, weighing out goods for customers. But we all “weigh” other people all the time, judging their appearance, their behavior, their character. The principle we learn from this week’s Torah portion – go beyond being “fair,” but give a little extra – also applies to our interpersonal relationships. We should go beyond perfectly fair. We should be a little more favorable than may be strictly required.
There is a beautiful story from the Talmud about the virtues of judging others favorably.
Our Rabbis taught: The one who is dan l’chaf zchut—the one who judges his neighbour in the scale of merit—who gives others the benefit of the doubt—is himself judged favourably. Thus a story is told of a certain man who descended from Upper Galilee and went to work for someone in the South for three years. The day before Yom Kippur the worker asked the owner for his pay: “Pay me so I can go and support my wife and children.” The owner said “I don’t have any money.” OK, maybe he’s having a little cash flow problem. So the worker says “Give me produce.” “I don’t have any” answered the owner. “Give me land.” — ‘I have none.’ ‘Give me cattle.’ — ‘I have none. ‘Give me pillows and bedding.’ — ‘I have none.’ So he slung his things behind him and went home with a sorrowful heart.
What would you think is going on here? Would you assume that the owner was messing with you?
After the Festival his employer took his wages in his hand together with three laden donkeys, one bearing food, another drink, and the third various sweetmeats, and went to his house. After they had eaten and drunk, he gave him his wages. The owner said to the worker, “When you asked me, ‘pay me,’ and I answered you, ‘I don’t have any money,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, Perhaps you came across cheap merchandise and bought it so your cash was tied up.” “And when you asked, ‘Give me cattle,’ and I answered, ‘I have no cattle,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, maybe those cows on the property have been hired out to others.” “When you asked me, ‘Give me land,’ and I told you, ‘I have no land,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, well, maybe he leased the land out to others.” “And when I told you, ‘I have no produce,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, Perhaps they are not tithed (the “taxes” had not been paid, and you were not allowed to distribute produce until the taxes had been paid).” ‘And when I told you, ‘I have no pillows or bedding,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, perhaps he has sanctified all his property to Heaven (donated all his property to the Temple).”
“By the [Temple] service!” exclaimed he, ”it was even so; I vowed away all my property because of my son Hyrcanus, who would not occupy himself with the Torah, but when I went to my companions in the South they absolved me of all my vows. And as for you, just as you judged me favourably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favourably.”
When we judge people, we are often focused on the negative. The ways people have screwed up, the ways people have hurt us.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov has a remarkable teaching in his magnum opus, Likutey Moharan, known as “Azamra.” Rebbe Nachman tells us not to focus on the negative – rather the opposite, focus on the positive. Even in someone who is completely wicked, you should search and seek out the good point, the good thing that the person did. Even a wicked person surely did some small act of kindness once in their life.
Rebbe Nachman uses as a launching point a verse in Psalm 37: “In yet a little bit the wicked man is not; you will reflect upon his place and he will not be there.” Rebbe Nachman says we need to seek out the me’at, the little bit, where the person is not wicked. When you reflect on his good traits, the wicked is not there.
Rebbe Nachman says,
For although he is wicked, how is it possible that he does not still possess even a little bit of good? Is it possible that throughout his life he never once did some mitzvah or good deed? And by your finding in him yet a little bit of good wherein he is not wicked, and your judging him favorably, you genuinely elevate him from the scale of guilt to the scale of merit, until, as a result of this, he returns [to God] in repentance.
He’s actually saying something similar to what the management guru Peter Drucker said: “Build on strengths.” Find the good parts. Nourish and encourage the good, focus on the good, and you may be likelier to help bring about a personal transformation than if you focus on the negative.
Rebbe Nachman teaches we should apply the same principle to ourselves:
It may be that when a person begins examining himself, he sees that he possesses no good whatsoever and is filled with sin, and that as a result the Evil One wants to push him into depression and sadness, God forbid. Even so, it is forbidden to fall on account of this. Rather, he must search until he finds in himself some little bit of good. For how is it possible that throughout his life he never once did some mitzvah or good deed? And even if when he begins examining this good thing he sees that it, too, is filled with flaws and contains no purity—i.e., he sees that the mitzvah or holy deed that he merited doing is itself comprised of impure motives, external thoughts and numerous faults—nevertheless, how is it possible that this mitzvah or holy deed contains not even a little bit of good? For in any case, despite this there must have been some good point in the mitzvah or good deed that he did.
If you seriously engage in the process of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, that our tradition encourages us to do during this month of Elul, it would be easy to find the many ways you have fallen short of your ideals, and become dispirited. But there is much more to being a good person than avoiding sin. Doing positive things is also important.
As we approach the New Year, may we judge others favorably, may we judge ourselves favorably, and may we encourage the good and positive in others and in ourselves!