And these have gotten an undeserved reputation for difficulty, mostly because of an overly idealistic presentation.
So the truth is that:
- Digging out a merit in another person does not excuse their abusive behavior.
- Judging another person favorably does not whitewash forbidden behavior.
- Giving the benefit of the doubt is actually forbidden when you know the person is an intentional unrepentant sinner. Assuming the best of intentions regarding a person who has repeatedly proven him or herself to be manipulative, exploitative, or sadistic actually causes harm to yourself and others (because your rosy disassociated state prevents you from protecting yourself and others from that person’s harm).
In fact, the exhortation against chanifah prohibits us from labeling a Torah-prohibited behavior as good when it’s actually bad.
Acting like it’s okay or excusable to wreak havoc on a person’s family or community simply because that person endured a difficult upbringing (or whatever) is wrong.
But saying, “This person is probably a good person at heart, but they apparently didn’t manage to rise to the challenge of a difficult upbringing. Their behavior feels right to them, even though it’s wrong. They don’t mean to be horrible. They either aren’t thinking or if they are thinking, they’re thinking wrongly. If they somehow knew better, they'd be better.”
That’s judging the person favorably.
They’re not innately evil—maybe they were even born good! Maybe Hashem even gifted them with many good points that aren’t yet actualized. They don’t mean to be horrible, they either aren’t thinking or they’re thinking down the wrong path, so to speak.
That’s a favorable judgment that can safely be used even in extreme situations.
Finding a good quality in another can ignite a person to do teshuvah without either you or them knowing it.
The good within us co-exists with the bad.
The bad is like a thick ugly klippah-peel weighing down upon our gem-like qualities.
Our diamonds are trapped within a klippah-shell of toughened muck.
A Story of Clashing Co-Existence
She constantly complains and harps over every bad thing that has ever happened to her.
Even with a positive scenario, she picks it apart to scrape out whatever negatives can be found. She dominates every conversation with her gloom.
And because she is so miserable and self-absorbed, she sometimes insults people without realizing it. This only adds to her “the world is a heartless place” conviction as the offended person responds with anger and she can’t understand why the insulted person is being so "mean" to her.
And it’s true that she has endured some real challenges in life, challenges that would bring anyone down. Yet those challenges don’t condemn her to a life of gloom.
(In fact, based on things she has said and what mussar books say, I think at least 2 of her big challenges result from her insistence on seeing the worst of everything, calling Hashem names during hitbodedut, and acting like any expression of gratitude is beyond her. But obviously, I can’t know for sure.)
For whatever the reason, she made a series of choices that resulted in becoming the kind of person she became.
I definitely see a wonderful person underneath a lot of klippah:
- She cares about people she perceives as suffering and invests tremendous effort and inconvenience to help them.
- She’s empathetic toward babies and small children.
- She’s devoted to her husband and I’m both impressed and admittedly mystified by their high level of shalom bayit.
- When people are consistently kind to her (regardless of her gloom, self-centeredness, and unintentional insults), she genuinely appreciates them and she openly expresses her appreciation and gratitude for their kindness toward her.
- She desperately wishes the world were a kinder and healthier place, and in her own bumbling blinded way, she does what she can to make it that way.
And that's not even all her positive qualities.
Fortunately, I don’t see her often, but when I do see her, I try my best to treat her with respect and relate to her according to her good points. It takes strenuous effort on my part to avoid getting dragged down by her gloom and misery, but it’s very worth it because underneath all the klippah, she really is a very good person who has suffered a lot, and I don’t want to hurt her further.
Baruch Hashem, several other people also insist on treating her with respect and compassion, and they daven for her.
And indeed, over the past couple of years, I think she has become “lighter.”
The Truth about People
In modern Edom, honesty is defined by whether you see negativity.
Judaism says exactly the opposite:
You’re not being honest unless you notice the positive.
Judaism doesn’t consider you as seeing the whole picture unless you can see the positive aspects too (even there’s only one).
Yet fear (or perhaps a need to feel good) leads some Jews to understand this mitzvah superficially and they believe that if you see any negativity, then you’re remiss. They also wrongly feel that suffering excuses, justifies, or whitewashes halachically forbidden behavior.
(In all the stories of tzaddikim, I've never seen that giving the benefit of the doubt is ever used to "okay" behavior that is halachically forbidden and/or just plain bad middot. Even Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev didn't justify or whitewash forbidden behavior, he tried to find a merit or a positive intention on the part of the errant one.)
So I don’t consider myself a Pollyanna or a fake or a moron for believing the woman above possesses some very great qualities.
At the same time, I also don’t consider myself an unspiritual or sinful or negative person for not only noticing that she suffers from some deeply problematic traits and beliefs, but for also realizing that her challenges don't need to define her in this way.
Her negativity, misery, ingratitude, and sometimes offensive behavior are not okay, despite her suffering.
But she's not innately horrible either. Underneath it all, she's very good.
And we can see both.
We shouldn’t be afraid to see both.
And if you can see the pristine light within another person, then that alone can spark them to do teshuvah.
You can see both & you can believe in their ability to change for the better.
And you can see both in yourself & believe in your own ability to change for the better too.