By Rabbi Yona Matusof
It is customary to study Pirkei Avot (the "chapters of Avot") between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot – the season of the giving of our Torah. (Shavuot starts May 16 in the evening)
To be worthy of receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we try to perfect our character. To assist in achieving this goal, we study Pirkei Avot, the tractate which is devoted to piety, humility, kindness, and ethics.
Chapter 1:6, "Judge every person favorably."
Chapter 2:4, "Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place."
On the most elementary level, both mean that if you discern a negative trait in your fellow or you see them commit a negative act, do not judge them guilty in your heart. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which their inborn nature, background, or circumstances hold sway over their lives and have influenced their character and behavior.
Enjoining us to "judge every person favorably" implies that we should see our fellow's deficiencies in a positive light. But what positive element is implied by a person's shortcomings and misdeeds?
The Talmud says (Sukah 52:1), "Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination for evil is also greater." One who has been advantaged with superior talents and qualities must struggle against an inclination towards corruption and evil far more powerful than that which faces the more "average" individual. Conversely, one who has been subjected to a greater measure of setbacks and trials in his life has been granted an equally greater measure of fortitude and achievement potential.
It follows, that if your fellow has committed a crime so despicable that you are incapable of even contemplating such a deed; if he is plagued by demons so horrendous that you can hardly envision such evil - know that he is undoubtedly in possession of a potential for good that far exceeds your own. Understand that while he has succumbed to forces far more powerful than anything which you will ever face, he is an invaluable human being, one whose inner resources, if cultivated, could translate into attainments unimaginable by one less evilly inclined.
In other words, look not to what he is but to what he can be. Dwell not on the way in which he has negatively expressed his potential, but on what this potential truly consists of. Believe in the potential, and it will materialize.
Our assessment of a fellow human being must always look beyond the actual to the potential reality within.
A word of caution: This only applies to your fellow, do not apply this to yourself. We must measure our own worth in terms of our real and concrete achievements, and view the potential in ourselves as merely the means to this end.
Best wishes from Faygie, Henya, Mushkie, Rabbi Mendel, Rabbi Avremel, Myself, and all of us at Chabad for a Good Yom Tov and a healthy and enjoyable summer and beyond.
Rabbi Yona Matusof is the Director of Chabad of Madison. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, and studied in Paris, France. After completing his studies at Rabbinical College in New York where he was ordained, he moved with his wife, Faygie, to Madison in 1980 as Rabbi of Chabad (Lubavitch) of Madison, serving the Madison and Dane County Jewish Community.