Judging favorably is a mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah, not simply a nice thing to do. Is it easy? Not for most people, especially since most of us have not been properly trained. We need to work on ourselves, and change how we think. It’s clearly worth the effort, since there are so many side benefits to this mitzvah:
- training ourselves to think positively will serve us in good stead for all kinds of situations
- Avoiding lashon hara (evil speech) – we know how important that is!
- gaining a merit to be judged favorably by Hashem (God) – something we all need
- And even actually contributing to a positive judgement in heaven concerning the topic at hand for the subject!
All this and more are among the wonderful ‘fruits’ of our labor.
But we can do even more with this attitude. Let’s develop the concept a bit. Many childrearing and relationship-improving books are full of one of the best motivators yet to be popularized: it’s the catch-them-doing-something-good-and-comment method. Interacting with our friends and loved ones in such a manner is a goal that most of us can strive for. Although mastering this skill is not so simply accomplished, I would like to suggest something that is an enhanced form of judging favorably. It’s what I call “Ascribe Positive Motives” and the idea is to develop and embellish the bit of “good” observed in others. That is, search out and find even a one percent positive factor in the action that you didn’t approve of, and expand upon that one percent.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l states that we do the things we do for a variety of motivations, some of which we ourselves are simply not aware. If we embrace a practice of searching out the ‘good’ component in situations that we find disturbing and then build upon this element, we can encourage others and especially our loved ones to greater successes.
The first time I thought seriously about this topic was when I read an amazing story about a man; let’s call him Shlomo, who has truly mastered this skill, as evidenced in the following:
Shlomo was in a hospital when he heard a lot of shouting in the hallway. He came out of his room to investigate, and encountered a bare-headed man, who broke off what he was saying when our hero, Shlomo, appeared. “Here is a Rabbi!” he declared. “Let him tell us what is proper.”
“I am not a rabbi,” corrected Shlomo, “but I do follow the dictates of Rabbis. Perhaps I can help.”
Said the Jew, “My mother is here in the hospital, but I shall not visit her. Nor shall I say Kaddish (Holy memorial prayer for the deceased) for her when the time comes. While I have been out of the country all these years, my conniving sister persuaded our mother to put her apartment in my sister’s name. This is outright robbery!”
The sister tearfully explained, “My brother has nothing to do with us in any way. He has left our traditions, and does not even call us. I have waited on my mother and cared for her all these years – she insisted on giving me her apartment! Now she is so ill, and listen to how he talks…”
Personally, to me, the case was clear. The brother was a bum, and needed to get lost. Quick. Hopeless case, selfish, inconsiderate, ungracious – you name it. But our star did not see it as I did.
Shlomo walked over to the man, put out his hand and gazed at him in sympathy. “I understand you. You came all the way over here to see your mother. You love your mother, and you miss your home that you grew up in. Unfortunately, your yetzer hara (evil inclination) got the better of you, and you have been away all these years. Really, you are a good person.”
Shlomo said a few more things in this vein, and our nasty ogre broke down in tears. He also went in to visit his mother. Later, he asked Shlomo to keep in touch with him. Amazingly, he went on to become a Ba’al Teshuvah (returnee to Torah).
In another story…
A fourth grade rebbe (Torah teacher), new to the school, was surprised when a student, Chaim, just stood up and started to walk out of class. The school year had just begun, and the rebbe naturally wanted to maintain discipline in the class. “Where are you going?” asked the rebbe.
Replied Chaim, very confidently, “I think I left something outside during recess. I want to check.”
“Oh no,” said the rebbe. “Sit down. You will have to wait until after class for that.”
Chaim sat down, quite annoyed. His astonishment at not getting his way was obvious, and puzzling to the rebbe.
The next day, Chaim came over to the rebbe’s desk and threw a note on the table as he went to his seat. As the boys began to daven (pray), the rebbe went out of the classroom to read the note. Clueless as to what the note was about, the rebbe had a big shock upon reading it. “Dear Rebbe, If you value your job, leave me alone. I have connections. My father is on the board, the principal is my cousin, every rebbe I have had knows I do what I want, and they don’t bother me.” The rebbe was scandalized – but had to think fast. He closed his eyes and begged Hashem for help, and re-entered the room.
“Chaim, thank you so much for your note. Please come with me. I want to help you out. Class, you can go out early to recess.”
Chaim, surprised at this request, got up. The rebbe put his arm around Chaim’s shoulder and spoke, without a pause, while walking Chaim to the teachers’ room. “Chaim, I just love getting notes from my talmidim (students). Truthfully, I couldn’t understand exactly what you meant to say, but I understand that you don’t feel so well. Let me make you a nice sweet cup of tea, and we’ll talk.”
Chaim, overwhelmed, began to drink the tea.
“As I was telling you, Chaim, I really love to get notes. But yours was unclear. Could you read it to me?”
It seems that although Chaim was extremely chutzpadik, even he had some shame. “No! No, I can’t… Rebbe, please, give me back the note,” Chaim said and tried to grab it away.
“Chaim, what do you mean? I love getting notes. I keep all my notes. But, if you are not ready to read it now, here is what we can do. Go to the office and get an envelope. We will seal the letter inside and I’ll keep it with my other notes. When you want to go over it with me, you can.”
Chaim ran to the office and came back with an envelope. The rebbe put the note in and sealed it. “Chaim, are you feeling a little better? Let’s go back, there are still a few minutes left of recess.” They walked back together, as friends who understood each other.
Chaim never did get around to reading rebbe that note, and he had a great year. Turns out it was the first time that he was treated like and behaved as just another kid. But the rebbe accomplished this by ignoring the inappropriate behavior and treating Chaim like a good boy.
I decided to try this technique in our home, and waited for my opportunity. A few days before Pesach I was trying to use up our freezer-burnt bread. I microwaved it with some cheese and offered it to one of my adolescents, who surprisingly said, “If no one else wants it, I’ll have it.” Meanwhile, some of the little kids were around the table as well, and I didn’t pay attention as to who was eating what. I just brought out more and more. As I was serving a third or fourth batch, my teenager said, “I’ll make sure to get some this time,” and he sprinkled it all with hot peppers, whereupon my six year old burst out crying.
I wanted to scream at the older one, reprimand him for being selfish, and do all the things a “good,” protective mother does, but luckily I remembered to Ascribe Positive Motives.
I went over to the six year old and said, “Now, now, your brother didn’t mean to take anything away from you. He thought you didn’t want any. He meant to share – he even said in the beginning that anyone can have.” I felt like I was lying, I didn’t believe what I was saying, but… Miraculously, the big brother picked up a piece of bread, and tried to wipe off the hot peppers. My six year old calmed down. I was amazed. I almost hadn’t judged him favorably… Had I reacted with a knee jerk reaction, and yelled at him, I am certain that he would have stormed angrily out of the room, (rightfully so!) etc, etc.
The common thread in each of these incidents is that the offense was totally ignored – not even a comment was given to it – and a positive motive was revealed and magnified.
So here is a plan of action:
On the way to a meeting, or while waiting for whomever to come home, prepare mentally to think before reacting to the next stimulus. Review in your mind your desire to find a positive aspect to the next occurrence of challenging behavior, and to reflect back, as in a magic mirror, the goodness of the deed or spoken words, although it did not come across in that way. Expose and expand the small point of righteousness, and develop and conform the event into your rendition. The person may feel, “I didn’t realize that I was thinking in that way…,” and they will hopefully rise to the occasion. You will be truly amazed at the initial reaction and the “fruits” of your well thought-out words. Just remember to Ascribe Positive Motives!
By Mrs. Tova Younger
Mrs. Tova Younger’s book, Hands-on How-to’s for the Home and Heart, a compilation of tips for spiritual and everyday living and recipes, is available for purchase in Jewish book stores.