And something I ran into frequently was the idea of giving a difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
And this is indeed a solid Torah commandment incumbent on every Jew at all times in every situation.
Yet ironically, I feel like I’ve been harmed and I’ve harmed others because I gave the benefit of the doubt.
How can that be?
The Secret to Living a Life of Torah: Learn to Embrace Paradox
- We give the benefit of the doubt, yet we also need to understand and utilize terms like rasha (a completely and intentionally evil person), and even when such people do good, we need to assume they're doing it for a bad reason.
- We are commanded to love our fellow Jew, yet keep our distance from one who consistently behaves badly.
- We must help our "enemy" load his donkey, yet refrain from being compassionate toward the cruel.
- We must plug our ears and hold our tongues against lashon hara, yet know when to speak out against someone.
- Unspeakably horrible things happen, yet God is Good and Compassionate and should be thanked and praised for everything.
(This paradox is encapsulated in the beautiful Chapter 3 of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes: “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven.”)
A while back, this blog featured a post called How to Avoid being a Pathological Pollyanna. It explains how to give the benefit of the doubt properly based on the Kli Yakar.
God wants us to use our brains.
He wants us to cultivate wisdom.
He wants us to look to our paragons of wisdom (our Sages) for guidance.
When I read a piece written by a fellow fine frum Jew, I’m getting her (or his!) perspective based on what she (or he!) finds inspiring.
And this differs from person to person.
If a person tends toward cynicism, snobbery, and judgementalness, then doing teshuvah drives that person overboard on optimism, acceptance, and appreciation…which is good for THAT person.
But it may not be good for you. (I wrote about this more in What Color is Your Bowl?)
Personally, I don’t find it difficult to see why another person—even a very bad person—behaves so badly. Western Liberalism has literally made a killing on this idea of understanding the motivations and thought processes of bad behavior.
Personally, I don’t find it that difficult to see the potentially very good person with someone currently behaving badly. It’s not hard to see how they can use their qualities for good.
I say this with gratitude because if I can do this, it comes from God, not me at all.
Yet on a practical level, this has done nothing to help me or anyone else.
Do you know how many times I’ve said (and had said to me):
- “This person doesn’t really know the harm she’s doing.”
- “This person actually does care about her/his own children.”
- “It’s okay because he or she has had such a hard life.”
- “It’s understandable because this person has been so traumatized.”
- “This person actually means well.”
- “This person doesn’t actually mean to hurt me/you/anybody.”
How many times? A LOT!
And guess what?
A lot of times, it’s NOT TRUE.
And a lot of times, it is true. But you can’t count on it being true.
- Do you know how many people I’ve tried to “love” into healthier behavior?
- Do you know how many people I really believed in because I could see actual good qualities…not from my imagination, but actual great potential that they definitely possessed?
- Do you know how many people to whom I related according to the wonderful potential I saw (not imagined, but actually saw) within them? (Meaning that I related to them as they could be and not as they were behaving at that moment?)
- Do you know how many people I treated with generosity and understanding and strenuous acts of kindness, giving them sincere praise about real and good qualities they possessed even as they treated me very badly, slandered me to others, and so on?
How many? I don’t know. But a lot.
And how many of these people did I succeed in influencing for the better?
- How many of them started to change because I saw their good points and treated them accordingly?
- How many of these people improved in even some slight way?
- How many of these people, upon finally being given the love and understanding they’d never received, finally relaxed and were able to start to love and understand others?
NONE! NO ONE! NOT EVEN ONE!!! IT NEVER HAPPENED EVEN ONCE!!!
All my lovely, high falutin’, oh-so-religious efforts were TOTALLY MEANINGLESS.
In fact, the opposite often happened: These people turn on you.
Why? Because you’re being so darn nice, an expectation builds up.
(And it’s an expectation that you cannot keep up. Why? Because you’re not God. Only God is Perfect. Only God is Unfailingly Trustworthy.)
And so you fail them in some way, such as:
- You get (understandably) irritable just one time.
- You fail to read their mind.
- You simply aren’t able to do whatever is that they want (like escort them on a sweltering summer day to the doctor when you’re pregnant)
- And so on.
And I know so many people who have given the benefit of the doubt and been lovely and generous toward consistently difficult people…all for naught.
(Note: I am specifically discussing consistently difficult people. Regular people going through a difficult time or people who actively seek to change or improve DO eventually show positive growth when judged favorably, treated according to their positive potential, and so on.)
Let me give you an example...
The Nice Jewish Girl and the Horrible Violent Ogre
Despite her fashionable secular lifestyle, she always wore long sleeves to cover the marks. Her husband used to force her to act as waitress and butler for the midnight poker games he held with his friends, regardless of how exhausted she was.
He also held bizarre and babyish expectations. For example, when he wanted coffee, he assumed his wife could somehow intuit this desire and read his mind, and therefore he ended up yelling, “Penina! My coffee! Where is it?” before he’d even asked for it.
At one point, Penina decided she wanted to become frum.
But when her husband caught her praying Tehillim, he shouted:
“WHAT DO YOU NEED GOD FOR?! THE ONLY ONE YOU’RE EVER GOING TO WORSHIP IS ME!”
Ooh, a real charmer! Do you think that a little more love and understanding are going to sort out this ogre?
(Don’t worry; they’re divorced now and she is living a great life full of Torah lectures, Tehillim, and spirituality.)
Now, I don’t know his personal history, but it’s not hard to imagine that he underwent some very trying times as a child to become the ogre he is now.
So...should we all start swooning with empathy and understanding, giving him the benefit of the doubt?
Does he really not mean to be such a vile ogre?
Does he really not understand that whipping his pretty little wife with a belt might be painful and inappropriate?
Anyway, at one point, Penina’s mother needed to undergo heart surgery. Due to lack of funds, Penina’s mother was just going to use whatever heart surgeon her public health fund would offer.
But when Penina’s husband found out that his mother-in-law would be undergoing heart surgery on the free health plan, he said, “No way! This is unconscionable! We must pay whatever it takes to get her the best heart surgeon possible!”
And he was the first to donate $30,000 toward this means, which he used as leverage to get other family members to donate whatever funds they could until he’d collected enough money to pay for a private heart surgeon. And his mother-in-law came through it all in good health.
- Did he demonstrate a good quality? Yes.
- Was there a lot of ego mixed into this good quality? Yes, of course.
And yes, other people still acknowledged that he’d done a very good thing, and that he’d been so generous and attentive when it wasn’t even his own mother, but his mother-in-law!
- Did others seeing this good quality of his change him one iota? NO!
- Did his fulfilling such a big mitzvah influence him positively in any observable way? NO!
So what are we supposed to do?
Judge Favorably…But Not Foolishly
By all means, do so!
A lot of people are touched by and appreciative of such generosity.
And even if they aren't, you've still performed a big mitzvah that stands on the side of merit for the entire Jewish people.
But if a person consistently behaves poorly in a certain area, then that means something.
Maybe they simply don’t know how they're affecting others.
Maybe they are temporarily going through a hard time.
But if you see that even when alerted to the hurtful behavior or that even in good times, they still behave badly…then likely they don’t care.
They may be very sunk into and addicted to their own bad behaviors.
Or, they may even enjoy hurting people.
Love from Afar: AVOID Bad Neighbors, Scoffers, and Sinners
But Judaism shows a lot of concern regarding the bad influence of others EVEN IF IT’S UNINTENTIONAL.
(The very first Tehillim/Psalm clearly exhorts us to avoid standing in the path/way of chata'im - unintentional sinners, reshaim - intentional sinners, and letzim - scoffers/mockers/time-wasters who just shoot the wind.)
On the contrary, we are supposed to connect to people on a higher level than us.
After all, we all accidentally sin.
And we all have bad habits/addictions that we find impossible to break.
Nonetheless, we still shouldn't hang out with other "sinners." We should seek out people who can influence us positively and hang out with them (if they'll have us ;).
Judaism commands us to avoid people who consistently behave inappropriately.
In my experience, I’ve found it very difficult to maintain my spiritual equilibrium around consistently difficult and resistant people.
I get stressed out, mentally shut down and disassociate, or act out EVEN if I judge them favorably, understand where they’re coming from, and all that lovely stuff.
Now maybe that’s just me.
Maybe you are far thicker-skinned and can maintain your own fine middot while interacting with these types.
But guess what? I can’t.
So I don’t.
However, I do pray for them. And this works.
Center God Firmly in the Picture…Do NOT Leave Him Out!
Pour it out to Hashem.
Tell Hashem how wonderful that person could be.
Tell Hashem how much that person has suffered.
Ask God to help that person.
I’m nothing. I can’t do anything. I really realize that now because God has whapped me in the face with this fact so many times until I got the message.
So I avoid interacting with these people and instead channel to Hashem all that loveliness demanded by the Torah.
Again, I cannot repeat this enough:
In my personal experience with consistently difficult and resistant people, merely judging favorably or seeing positive qualities and potential and even treating that person according to their real positive potential does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to heal that person’s nefesh even one iota.
(You can even be harmed by this same person.)
The commanded favorable judgment and diamond-spotting MUST be done with Hashem.
That’s the only way.
Tell God about the good you see and think about this person.
Don’t do it on your own.
Happily Recognize the Secret Pride Lurking behind the Well-Intentioned Appearance of Humility
And humility is one of the hardest traits to embrace.
So it’s safe to assume that no matter how good you are and how good you are trying to be, you probably struggle with gaava and humility, even if you don’t realize it.
And that’s okay. Even the greatest tzaddikim found this to be a great battle.
So while putting up with other people’s slop for the sake of “helping” them looks nice and self-effacing, it often is rooted in a certain amount of pride and ego.
And I’m speaking for myself here.
I thought I was being good, but self-introspection helped me realize that despite my good intentions and desire to be a good little Jewess, there was a certain amount of ego mixed in with it all.
So it follows that while you may certainly have pure and good intentions that emanate from your holy neshamah, those pure intentions are also likely mixed up with a bit of ego.
It may be your path to feeling good, feeling like a good person, trying to gain some control over a difficult situation, etc.
It can even come from fear. For example, your only other option may be to leave your job or relationship or neighborhood. So you unconsciously prefer trying to change the person instead.
Furthermore, difficult people usually don’t value your opinion.
Due to abuse they suffered in the past, they probably unconsciously search to please abusive people as a way to rectify their unsatisfiable abusers in their past.
Simply by virtue of the fact that you aren’t abusive, your opinion is automatically worth less to them.
That’s another reason why your sincere praise, empathy, and understanding do not help them. Sure, they might enjoy your treatment of them. But they usually don’t appreciate it.
In fact, they may even look down on you for thinking so highly of them.
They might even see you as stupid and easily manipulated for viewing them so positively.
Some people even get angry at you for viewing them positively and forgivingly. Furthermore, upon “diagnosing” you as stupid and easily manipulated, they may even decide that you deserve to be victimized! (Ask me how I know…)
And finally, as stated above, you ultimately cannot fulfill this person’s needs.
Only God can.
(Please see Gate of Trust, Chapters 1-3 in Duties of the Heart for more detail on how God is the only One Who can be trusted; no human being can ever fulfill the necessary qualifications.)
So again, the best way to do this is to turn it all to Hashem.
So What Do You Do Now?
This automatically decreases your ego investment and increases your humility.
Nobody knows how lovely, patient, long-suffering, or heroic you’re being…except God. And that’s really good. It’s also a lot more effective. Why? Because you end up praying for the other person from a really good place. And that’s very powerful.
To sum it all up:
- Find the diamonds and good points in the person, even the biggest ogre.
- Understand this person’s past, their pain, and more.
- See the person’s positive potential.
- Then…tell this all to HASHEM and ask Him to help them do teshuvah and fulfill all that wonderful potential you've described.
Fifteen minutes telling the above to Hashem does a ton more than spending hours:
- listening and empathizing with the person
- cleaning their home
- cooking them meals
- watching their kids
- driving them places
- stroking their ego
- giving them money
- giving them chizuk and encouragement
(Of course, you can do all the above. That's chessed!
But watch your motivation: Do the above only because you want to as a mitzvah for Hashem’s Sake, and not because you feel forced to or because you think that they’ll start behaving or thinking better.)
So take your good eye, your diamond-finding, your favorable judgement, your understanding, your good-heartedness…
…and channel it all toward Hashem.
May we all succeed in doing teshuvah from love, and not through bitter trials or degradations.