The well-known Mishnah (Avos 2:5) tells us, “Al tadin es chavercha ad shetagia limkomo – Don’t judge your friend until you have reached his place.” Rabbi Daniel Kalish asked a most poignant question. We understand that the Mishnah is teaching us not to judge another person because we will never be precisely in his place. Even if two people share similar external situations, they have different personalities and emotional makeups to contend with. So what the Mishnah should have simply said was that we shouldn’t judge because we don’t know his place, not until we reach his place.
We have two options when faced with someone whose flaws get us riled up. One is to simply say, “It’s not my place to judge.” This attitude is correct and necessary, but, where possible, we can do even better. Let us really try to actually understand where he may be coming from. Let us try to reach his place and see things from his angle. Then, not only will we be able to quell our negative attitude, but we may even discover the greatness of the person.
There is a most beautiful Gemara in Maseches Taanis (9b) that relates how Ula was visiting Bavel and at first had a critical view of the people there. He said, “The dates are so cheap and yet the Babylonians don’t learn Torah.” Meaning, they should be spending more time learning, as their budget is very manageable.
That night, after having eaten some of those dates, Ula had some stomach problems. In a complete change of opinion, he said in admiration, “The dates are so cheap and the Babylonians still learn Torah!” While Ula previously frowned upon the Babylonians, now, after having understood where they were coming from, he looked at them with admiration.
We see youth who are nebach struggling with their Torah observance. Unfortunately, many assume that they are just “giving in to their yeitzer hara” and view them in a negative light. The reason for this is because they never got to know any of these young men and women. They never bothered talking to them and learning who they are and where they are coming from. I personally never met one who didn’t impress me with so much goodness once I got to spend some time with them. I beg you: Just get to know him first, because otherwise how can you judge someone you don’t know?
Can we think of one misdeed of our own that we don’t have some good rationale for? We might acknowledge that our excuses don’t completely exonerate us, but we definitely don’t see ourselves as outright sinners. We need to realize that the next person also has a story, one that may be far more complex and challenging than ours. It may be a story that would not only exonerate him in our eyes, but would actually cause us to have increased respect.
We are approaching the Three Weeks, which is a time to put even more emphasis on our bein adam lachaveiro. We may suggest that this period of working on ahavas Yisroel is so perfectly placed before the days of Elul. Derech eretz kodmah laTorah. The precious work on our middos is what makes up people who are able to become closer to Hashem – through emulating Hashem.
Let us not only not judge, but actually try to get to know people better. Listen to their story and discover their greatness. We will not only become better people, but will help those around us become better as well.
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