Judging Favorably

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Judging Favorably

Summarized by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In my Friday night sichot, I usually discuss the first verse of the parasha. There are two reasons for this. One is that it is simply easier to open the Chumash to the first verse and to speak about it than it is to start searching through the parasha for some other subject. The second reason is that there is usually an abundance of midrashim and teachings of Chazal that are cited specifically in connection with the first verse.


In any event, I will now deviate from my usual habit, since I want to address a subject relating to current events. I would guess that this Shabbat, the same subject is being discussed in almost every synagogue in Israel: the sin of the spies, and that which led to it – a rejection of the land. Everybody is talking about Ramban's famous teaching concerning the sin of the spies, and the clear connections between his words and the imminent Disengagement. I would like to address a different Ramban in our parasha, which – to my mind – is more important than the one about the spies.


Following the episode of the spies, the Torah discusses various communal sacrifices, one of which is the sacrifice for a sin performed out of ignorance:


"And if you shall err, and not perform all of these commandments which God has spoken to Moshe – all that God has commanded you by the hand of Moshe, from the day that God gave the command and forward, for your generations…." (15:22-23)


The Rishonim debate the meaning of this unit: how is it possible that the whole of Am Yisrael could transgress all of the mitzvot of the Torah? Could there possibly be a situation in which we would not fulfill a single mitzva, and transgress "all of these commandments… from the day when God commanded and forward"? Rashi explains:


"'And if you should err and not perform' – [This refers to] idolatry… [which is] one mitzva that is equal to all of the mitzvot."


In other words, Rashi senses this difficulty; he therefore interprets the verse to mean that the entire nation has engaged in idolatry, and this is considered as though they had transgressed the entire Torah.


Ramban disagrees. He maintains that the Torah means exactly what it is saying:


"This parasha is opaque, and those who seek to interpret it according to its plain meaning are bound to err… What is means is that it is the sacrifice of one who denies the entire Torah, by mistake, such as one who goes and attaches himself to one of the nations, to act as they do, not wishing to be associated with Jews at all, and that all of this happens unintentionally. For example, in the case of an individual, and infant may be taken captive among the nations, or in the case of the collective – they may think that the time of the Torah is over, and that it is not meant for all generations.  Or they may say, as written in the Sifri, 'God says that if we do as He says, we will receive a reward, but we choose not to do and not to receive the reward.'"


In other words, we are talking about an entire community that thinks that the observance of Torah is a matter of choice.  Even though they choose not to keep the Torah, they fall under Ramban's category of one who "errs"! Are these people simply mistaken? Surely they are complete heretics!


Ramban is teaching us what it means to give fellow Jews the benefit of the doubt. Even when a person does something that is utterly abominable, that appears to us to represent irredeemable heresy, Ramban is still willing and able to seek his good and to judge him as one who "errs."


Not long ago, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun and another rabbi were discussing the subject of religious outreach amongst the secular Israeli population. His partner in debate asked, "What does it matter whether we try to reach out or not? Ultimately, we're talking about Hebrew-speaking goyim; why should we try to convert them?" This was admittedly a rabbi of extreme views, but today I have the feeling that this sort of perception is invading our sector, too. Over the course of the debate over Gush Katif, I have heard some of our rabbis expressing a view of secular Israelis as "Hebrew-speaking goyim." Therefore, it is imperative that we keep in mind what Ramban is teaching us, and that we maintain our ability to judge favorably even those people who might seem to be complete heretics.


When I was young I used to go hear Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap's sicha every Shabbat, even though ever sicha dealt with the same topic: segulat Yisrael, the uniqueness of the Jewish people. He emphasized that every Jew must be regarded favorably; even if a Jew disagrees with us, we must not look upon him as someone devoid of values and morality.


Rav Kook, too, imparted this message. He explained that the concept of "judging favorably" is not based on sentimentality or emotion; rather, it is something altogether rational.  Reason demands that we look upon every Jew as someone with merits and goodness. Rabbi Tzaddok, in his "Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik" (54), makes a statement that was censored from some earlier editions: "The crux of Judaism is being called a Jew." According to this, even a person who does not fulfill the commandments may still be judged favorably, so long as he regards himself as part of the Jewish nation.


During the Second World War, I saw the difference between gentile soldiers and Jewish soldiers, and there is no comparison between them. The immoral actions of the gentile soldiers during the war were terrible; Jewish soldiers did not act in that way. Years ago, the head of the Manpower Branch of the I.D.F. told me that in a meeting with his American counterpart, he asked him what the Americans do with a soldier who is killed. The general told him that they pass the information on to the division commander, then to the brigade commander, and so on up the ladder of ranks, until about two weeks later the parents are notified. The way it works here is that within a few hours the family is notified of the death of their loved one. The example that I cite here is from the American army! It is clear beyond any doubt that Jews are a moral people, and it is possible to find a way to judge every Jew favorably.


Despite all the talk about the lack of values among secular Israelis, during Operation Defensive Shield we saw how all the reservists suddenly showed up to fight for the country, how they were ready to give up their lives for that ideal. This shouldn't come as any surprise to us; we see this all the time when the 'hesder' students enlist for army service and discover that there are secular people who regard their military service as a way to contribute to the nation and the country.


Every Jew must be judged favorably, as we see from the Ramban in our parasha. Instead of publicizing only the famous Ramban about Eretz Yisrael, let us try to emphasize his no less important lesson about the obligation to judge all our fellow Jews favorably, and let us act upon this lesson.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Shelach 5765 [2005].)