21 - Situations - Do Not Judge Another Until You Are In His Place

We cannot judge someone else until we stand in his shoes. Even if we find ourselves in the exact same position as him, we still may not be in his shoes, because we come at life from a different angle, with different strengths and deficits.

We are stretching in ahavas yisrael together to create
z’chuyos for K’lal Yisrael in these urgent times.

Last week’s stretch of the week was: Look for a way that you can help in your community, and take a step toward doing it.

Please allow ONE person to share her experience with this exercise for ONE minute.

Lesson #21
Do Not Judge Another Until You Are In His Place

ואל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו
V’Al Tadin Es Chavari-cha Ad She’takia’a Limkomo

Perek Bais, Mishna Hay

Story: (based on a true story)

It was erev Shabbos and I was calmly kneading challah when the phone rang and I mindlessly answered it, "Hello?"

"Mrs. Zalcman?"

"Yes, who's this?" I answered.

"Mrs. Sternberg. My daughter Malka and your daughter Rifka are in 8th grade together. I hear you are one of the chaperones taking the girls on the trip to Washington. I have some issues I'd like to discuss with you! First of all, are you sure you can handle the situations that are going to come up? I mean, forgive me, I don't know you at all!"

She was correct that we didn't know each other at all, and that was more her fault than mine. My family had just moved to our small town the previous summer and it was now almost the middle of May. Since the beginning of the school year, there had been monthly parent meetings and fund-raising events for the big Washington trip, and despite her concerns and questions and much encouragement to attend, neither Mrs. Sternberg nor her husband had ever shown up for one of the meetings.

If she had attended the meetings, she'd have known that I’d never intended to chaperone this trip so soon after moving to a new community. But as the year moved on, there was only one committed chaperone, and she needed another parent to accompany her, otherwise the trip would be canceled. I thought mostly of how disappointed my daughter would be after the hardship of moving and changing schools for 8th grade, so I became the second chaperone, and was very excited. Then the phone call came crashing me back into reality with this angry mother. I took a deep breath and calmly answered her.

"What concerns are you talking about?"

"Well, forgive me for being blunt, but who are you? Where do you come from and how do I know my child will be safe with you? What level frumkeit are you holding at? We're cholov yisroel, I want to make sure that if you decide to go somewhere, my child won't eat ice cream that's cholov stam!"

I'd long forgotten my challah kneading, and now moved to my living room, sat down on the couch and was slightly shaking. Nonetheless, I calmly answered what I could, all the while being in a state of shock.

"Mrs. Sternberg, I truly wish we could have gotten to know each other before today, just days before the trip! If you'd only come to one or two of the parent meetings throughout the year, you'd perhaps have been reassured that your daughter is going to be treated just like my own daughter. As for cholov yisroel, even though I'm sure you're daughter knows what to eat and what not to eat, I would never, on a school function, take a group of girls who all hold differently, to a cholov stam ice cream shop and have some girls just watch others eat. As for my level of frumkeit, I think that is for a longer discussion, but the principal has approved my being a chaperone, so if you have any doubts about me personally, perhaps that might be the best place to discuss those issues. But please know that your daughter will be truly cared for in my hands and I'm personally looking forward to the trip. Have a good Shabbos!"

After that, she too wished me a hasty Good Shabbos and hung up the phone. My challah was all but forgotten, I was so upset with her chutzpa.

Nonetheless, the trip was fabulous, and Mrs. Sternberg’s daughter was absolutely lovely. The summer went by, and when my daughter started high school we found out that this woman was a ninth grade teacher at the school. I was terrified; things hadn't ended so well between us and I hoped she wouldn't treat my daughter differently as a result.

My fear was founded as the year progressed. Mrs. Sternberg seemed to pick on my daughter. I talked gently to her a couple times, to no avail. Often at the shul kiddish or at school events I would see her standing alone staring at me while I stood with a group of my friends laughing and chatting. I admit I was too scared and intimidated by her to approach her, but I was intrigued by her. Finally in an attempt to understand her better I asked some close friends of mine who had lived in town longer than me what her story was.

I was shocked; on paper our stories could have been the same. Her father had died when she was very young and her mother raised her and her siblings on her own with almost no help, with Mrs. Sternberg’s mother imposing on her many parental responsibilities even as a young child. I knew personally the pain and bitterness an upbringing like that sometimes fosters. When I myself had grown up, I had some counseling and some amazing mentors, and I learned to take a happier and sunnier approach to life. I had also met so many people along my journey with similar stories that had a harder time finding their joy and peace.
Once I understood where Mrs. Sternberg's bitterness and anger might come from, things shifted for me. My resentment and anger toward her melted away and all I had left for her was pure rachamim and empathy. As the days passed, something grew from that empathy: a desire to help her be happier and to get to know her. So one day I got up enough courage and called her up to say hello. I told her that we see each other everywhere but never say hi. Then I did what every mom loves: I complimented her on what a wonderful daughter she has. By the end of our conversation, between compliments and humor, she'd melted her icy shell toward me.

Mrs. Sternberg has turned out to be one of my closest friends. I have learned that there was so much love and joy inside her with nowhere to go. She needed a friend, someone to take the time to break through her facade and really see her. I have learned that behind someone's anger might lay buried pain. We all process differently. It's all about perspective.

Pirkay Avos:
"הלל אומר: ואל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו ..."
"Hillel omer: … V’al tadin es chavari-cha ad she’tagi’a limkomo…"
"Hillel says: And don’t judge another until you are in his place…" (Perek Bais, Mishna Hay).

We cannot judge someone else until we stand in his shoes. Even if we find ourselves in the exact same position as him, we still may not be in his shoes, because we come at life from a different angle, with different strengths and deficits.

Rav Shneur Zalman teaches in his Tanya that our sages’ directive to "be exceedingly humble before everyone" (Pirkai Avos 4:12) means that we may not judge anyone until we have been in his place, literally. "The place where a person spends his time causes him to sin. He might have to earn his living by spending his entire day in the marketplace. Then his eyes see various things that he desires and his evil inclination is set aflame. Another person may have the luxury of sitting at home and rarely stepping into the street." Perhaps if you had been subjected to those same trials, your behavior may have been no better.
The Imrai Emes suggested that the term mikomo, his place, may refer to his mission, his true "place" in life. While your peer’s behavior may seem inexplicable in light of your objective in life, such behavior may be totally acceptable in the context of his mission.

R Yitzchak Abarbanel states that this mishna teaches us that we cannot judge someone until we see him in his true place in the World to Come. There we can discern if he has repented of his evil deeds, and is thus in the company of the righteous.

The Torah instructs us, "You shall surely rebuke you fellow Jew" (Vayikra 19:17). Yet how can we do so if we are obligated to judge him favorably? Rabbainu Yosef ben Shushan explains that rebuking someone does not consist of lecturing, berating or shaming, but of helping a person improve. We can do this particularly well by having empathy for him, by understanding his motives, by seeing through his eyes, by listening to him and comprehending how he views matters in light of his own experiences. Our most effective rebuke may come about precisely because we judge another favorably.

(Reproduced from Rav Lau on Pirkei Avos and from Pirkei Avos with Ideas and Insights of the S’fas Emes and other Chassidic Masters, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

Discussion Question Options:
What are some situations where we rebuke someone when we should or could judge them favorably instead?

What are some examples where we might find ourselves in the exact same position as someone else, yet we're not in his shoes, because we come at life from a different angle, with different strengths and deficits?

Give examples that we can relate to today how "The place where a person spends his time causes him to sin..."

Stretch of the Week:
Make a point to judge someone favorably instead of automatically rebuking them.


Stretch Of The Week