Shiur #05:Ayin Tova

  • Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct

By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman



Refuah Shleima to Aaron Meir Ben Silah




Dedicated by Rabbi Barry and Shoshana Hartman in memory of
Sarah and Gustave (Sarah and Gedalya) Hartman z”l,
Cipora and Rabbi Moshe Turner z”l




Shiur #05: Ayin Tova





In last week’s lesson, we started to discuss the parameters of the obligation to judge others favorably.  We concluded with the powerful idea of Rav Hirsch, distinguishing between the judgment of the courts, in which no outside factors may be taken into account, and the judgment of society as a whole, in which the opposite is true.  Societal judgment actually requires that we take into account the nature of the individual and go to all lengths possible to include any factors that may contribute to a favorable judgment.


At some points though, the attempt to find something good and positive in order to judge others favorably seems a little forced, and sometimes even far-fetched.  One may wonder: why is it so important to judge positively at all times?  Furthermore, though the strict letter of the law allows for one to judge those who are known to be wicked negatively, numerous stories are told of righteous individuals who went to extreme lengths to judge others favorably and find good in others, at almost all costs.  A number of stories surround the personality of the legendary Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv, a Chasidic rebbe known as sanegoran shel Yisrael, the defense attorney of the Jewish people.  These stories just beg the question: is this how it is supposed to be?


In one story, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv was walking with his students, when they came across a man who was fixing his carriage while wearing his tallit and tefillin. The Chasidim stopped in their tracks and called: “Rebbe! That Jew is fixing his cart in the middle of prayer!” Rav Levi Yitzchak lifted his hands to the heavens and said: “Master of the Universe, look at your dear child: even while fixing his cart, he prays!”


Along similar lines, the story is told that Rav Levi Yitzchak saw someone eating on Yom Kippur.  After confirming that this person realized that it was Yom Kippur and that he was forbidden to eat, Rav Levi Yitzchak turned heavenward and said “See how great your children are: even those who eat on Yom Kippur will not tell a lie.” 


Though these stories depict how far one can go in finding the good in others they also raise a question: isn’t this behavior rather naïve? Shouldn’t one call a spade a spade?  After seeing gross violations of proper conduct, shouldn’t one live with the painful reality and recognize evil?


A New Outlook


The question is so thought-provoking that it essentially acts as its own answer.  The laws of when to judge others favorably complement the meritorious message of the Mishna in Avot that one should judge others favorably even when not required to do so.  Together, these sources are not only telling us how to judge others, but more importantly how to think.  A thorough analysis of the aspects of societal judgment indicates that the guidelines of Halakha attempt to provide a basis for a new outlook concerning the world in general and other people in particular.  To better understand, let’s take a deeper look at the concept of judging others.


Judging is a dangerous endeavor and should ideally be left for the professionals.  Indeed, we find in the Talmud that competent and knowledgeable scholars were afraid to act as judges, lest they err (see Sanhedrin 6b).  All this is true even regarding a judge who sits on a three-member panel, all the more so for an individual.  In fact, even a professional judge, no matter how great he is, is advised by the Mishna (Avot 4:8) not to judge alone:


He used to say: “Don’t judge others alone, for there is no lone judge other than the One and Only.”


Though the Mishna might merely seem to be presenting good advice, the Shulchan Arukh (CM 3:3) interprets and codifies the source as a rabbinic prohibition against judging others independently.


If this is true for a judge whose communal responsibilities require him to sit in judgment of others, it certainly should be true for an average member of society, who should presumably shy away from making judgments about others altogether.  Judging others may involve a number of logical fallacies as well as limitations.  It is often the search for justice itself which prevents us from seeing the good in others, the redeeming qualities behind outer appearances.  For this reason, judging others is not recommended; in truth, when one judges others, one is very unlikely to arrive at the truth.


Even when judging, one must realize the near-impossibility of arriving at a correct verdict.  The Mishna in Avot (2:4) tells us the lesson of Hillel:


Do not judge your fellow ad she-tagia li-mkomo.


One might read this statement literally, as the Me’iri does: the Mishna is advising one to judge people only in their natural surroundings, for when in another area people might put on a show, only revealing their true natures at home.  However, a majority of commentators seem to understand this statement as a metaphor: “Do not judge your fellow until you have been in a similar position.”  The Mishna tells us that one cannot objectively judge others, either because one is unaware of the temptations that may bring others to sin (Tiferet Yisrael) or because one might not have restrained himself or herself (Rabbeinu Yona).  Rav Hirsch (ad loc.) explains this nicely and succinctly:


Let no one presume to pass judgment on others, for he does not know the circumstances of his erring brother and the temptations that have led his brother astray.  How can he know whether, in similar circumstances and exposed to the same temptations, he would have been more steadfast in his devotion to duty?


Indeed, it may be that this concept stands at the basis of the commandment to judge others favorably.   In an ideal world, there would be no need to judge others outside of a courtroom.  The only need for doing so arises because society has to know how to interact with others.  In order to know whom to befriend, who can be trusted in business and who might be a negative influence, one must often begrudgingly pass judgment.  However, even in this context, we are encouraged and sometimes required to judge le-khaf zekhut.  As we concluded last lesson, the verdict of the court relates to guilt and innocence regarding a specific act or dealing, while judgment in the societal context is in order to arrive at the nature of the individual.  Is this someone who can and should be trusted? 


This is where the challenge of judging others comes to the fore.  How do we maintain a positive outlook on others while at the same time being cautious enough to recognize the faults of others that may prove detrimental to us?  After all, sometime giving the benefit of the doubt may be dangerous!  A person who always assumes the best may not see problems and flaws in others; this may such an individual to fail to take proper action against possible evil.  On the other hand, someone who only sees faults will develop a very negative personality.  What is the proper balance?


Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook deals with this issue in a number of his writings.  He stresses the need to have tremendous love for one’s fellow Jew: while recognizing flaws and not turning a blind eye to problems, one should not be overly occupied with criticizing others.


The great love we have for our nation must not blind us from criticizing her blemishes.


Rav Kook (Orot, p. 148) understood that giving the benefit of the doubt is not always simple. He calls it “one of the great fields of Torah”.  Rav Kook explains that people assume that giving the benefit of the doubt is an emotional endeavor, but in fact doing so requires applying great wisdom, the prudence of a judge.  No judge would decide to convict without having all the facts before him.  Outside of the courtroom, on the other hand, we are accustomed to decide that someone is guilty without knowing all of the facts. Having acquired a small amount of information, we assume that someone is guilty. However, our judgments lack any real basis.  The Torah believes in chesed, and a person who does not know all the facts must view others favorably, for one has no justification to do otherwise.


With this in mind, it seems that the obligation to judge other favorably and to give the benefit of the doubt demands that we alter our way of looking at others.  It is almost natural to pass judgment on others quickly, failing to realize their true greatness or the difficulties through which they have persevered.  Halakha recognizes that with some individuals, and under certain circumstances, favorable judgment might be dangerous, and it advises us accordingly.  However, in the bigger picture, the Torah strives to direct us towards a deep love of the Jewish people, which expresses itself in a positive view of mankind and an optimistic view of humanity.  How does one succeed in this endeavor?  It is all in the eyes, for as we know, seeing is believing.


Ayin Tova: The Good Eye’s Outlook on the World


The ability to develop a positive outlook on various things is referred to in the Mishna as ayin tova — literally, a good eye.  The opposite attribute, ayin ra’a, is also referred to as ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, a massively destructive force in Jewish tradition.  In the second chapter of Avot, we find all three terms.


Avot 2:8-9 tells us that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his five most highly-prized students to identify “the proper path to which a person should cleave.”  Though Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, whose opinion seems to be accepted by his teacher, points to lev tov, a good heart, as essential, Rabbi Eliezer advises that the proper path in life is to develop an ayin tova, a good eye, and the most detrimental approach to life is that of an ayin ra’a, a bad eye.  What is so important about a good eye that makes developing it the “proper path” for character development?


A number of commentators seem to understand that this term refers to one who isn’t jealous of others’ possessions or accomplishments.  However, the Maharal takes this idea one step further, explaining how much impact one’s outlook has on his or her life. He explains that Rabbi Eliezer's ayin tova means that a person should look well upon others, wish them well and be happy in their successes.  A good eye does not refer to the sharpness of one's sight, but the generosity of one's vision. 


The Maharal makes a very poignant observation.  Of the five basic senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – four are, for the most part, objective; they enable a person to perceive an object as it is. However, the sense of sight is subjective; a person sees things as he wishes to see them. The subjective nature of vision allows for the concept of ayin tova and ayin ra’a.  The way in which we view the world is determined by an internal element.  Generosity of vision or the lack thereof is not a physical matter at all - it is a question of the nature of the person doing the viewing.  One person sees a cup as half-full, while another sees it as half-empty.


The Maharal further develops his analysis by pointing out that the term for seeing in the Hebrew language, re’iya, sometimes means seeing and other times refers to understanding.  Just as understanding is a power of the soul and mind, so too seeing is not a purely physical process; one sees based upon one’s inner understanding of the world. 


The importance of ayin tova indicates that a Jew is supposed to train his or her eyes to see the good. This involves satisfaction with one’s possessions coupled with the ability to see the good in others, to see beyond the difficulties of the present with a sense of optimism.  As the Shabbat liturgy mentions, “Every eye looks to You with hope.”  A Jew should not be ignorant of the present; rather, one must be able to see past the bad and be confident in the possibility of a brighter future.


It is this outlook of ayin tova that is the legacy of Avraham Avinu.  The Mishna (Avot 5:22) contrasts the ayin, ruach (spirit) and nefesh (soul) of Avraham’s school with that of Bilam’s school:


Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul are among the disciples of our forefather Avraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilam.


The Mishna doesn’t focus on all the great character traits of Avraham, but rather the essential attributes that were the root of his generous personality.  Avraham was able to be a master of chesed because he possessed these three traits.  Avraham could provide excessively for others, beyond their basic needs, as he had a positive outlook concerning others.  He could let idol-worshippers in his house without prejudgment, realizing that their beliefs were a function of their upbringing; he left room for their learning the truth about existence.  Bilam, on the other hand, had an evil eye; he could not stand the fact that Jews had things he didn’t, and thus he was prepared to curse them.


The Tiferet Yisrael (Yakhin) adds an interesting insight into Avraham’s ayin tova.


A man has the ability to see straight, think clearly, and have faith despite his lack of rational understanding.  It is written about Avraham: And he believed in God” (Bereishit 16:6), even when he was told that his descendants would be too numerous to count.


Part of ayin tova is to see past the present.  A famous quote, often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, states: “It takes a good deal of character to judge a person by his future instead of his past.”  Avraham teaches us that one need not focus on the bad; instead, one may focus on the possibility of bringing about a marvelous future.  This may be what allows Avraham to see good and potential even in the extremely wicked city of Sedom, which he beseeches God to spare. 


This positive outlook also explains the greatness of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv: a worldview which at first might look naïve or unrealistic is in fact just plain optimistic.  Rav Levi Yitzchak did not forget for one moment the negativity of the actions of those particular Jews, but he chose not to focus on those acts.  He looked instead to identify the one aspect of good in their actions, and this made all the difference.


How is one to develop this ayin tova?  What mindset enables one to focus on the positives rather than on the negatives of another’s personality?  The Chasidic masters provide great insight into the deeper aspects of the obligation to judge others favorably.  They explicate how this mitzva provides the guidelines for positive analyses of others.


The Sefat Emet: Judging the Whole Person


According to the Sefat Emet, we are not instructed to ignore a person’s actions. It is important to criticize others constructively; nevertheless, at the same time, we are obligated to love the person no less and to try to understand what would lead them to act in a negative manner.  The Sefat Emet draws a fascinating conclusion from the unique terminology used by the Mishna in Avot regarding judging others favorably (see our previous lesson).  The Mishna speaks of judging everyone, “et kol ha-adam” (literally: “all of the man”) favorably.   What does “all of the man” or “the whole of the person” mean in this context?  The Sefat Emet explains the significance of the definite article in this phrase:


You must give each person the benefit of the doubt.  Why does it say “ha-adam” instead of just “adam”?  For when a man’s actions are judged, one cannot look at the one act in isolation; rather, his entire personality must be taken into account, his background and what he has gone through. This way we may realize that we would act similarly in his place.


Essentially, the Sefat Emet explains how to judge someone properly: one must look at the whole of the person, not his or her single negative act.  Though in this action we may not see favorable elements, we certainly may find favorable aspects of the individual.  We also may realize that the history of an individual’s unique circumstances plays a role in his or her behavior. 


Rather than being quick to vilify others for their behavior, we should realize the futility of our attempts to judge others.  We must be careful and caring, expressing a desire to help others who are acting improperly, passing unfavorable judgment as rarely as possible, only as necessary.


Looking Inside Oneself


The Baal Shem Tov (Parashat Kedoshim 2) explains the danger in passing quick negative judgments.  The behavior of others, he maintains, is like a mirror of our own.  We only see actions that are connected to our own behavior, at least subtly.  If so, when we pass negative judgment on others, we are actually convicting ourselves.


When one sees an evil person doing something reprehensible, committing a powerful sin, he should judge him favorably.   He should assume that the sin was the result of being driven by an overwhelming urge or gross physicality, or that the sinner does not know the sin’s severity, etc. Through this, he saves himself from judgment.  In reality, when a person sees another’s sin, he should realize that he has a similar fault, that there is an accusation and harsh judgment cast upon him.  When he finds a merit in his friend’s behavior, he too will be considered meritorious…

This is really a great test. We have received the teaching that no verdict is made against a person unless he himself issues it. Now a person will certainly not rule negatively against himself; rather, Heaven shows him a man that commits some sin similar to the one he did and he passes judgment on it, thereby passing judgment on himself…

He should try and bring the other to repent with all his might and cleanse the other from the filth of his sin, realizing that the same fault lies within him.  Concerning one’s self, one always finds merits; so he should find merits and loving-kindness in all of Israel.  Their common denominator is that they are all righteous, all pure and all worthy of all of the blessings . . .


Essentially, being judgmental is dangerous, for by passing judgment on others we essentially convict ourselves of similar crimes that we perform when confronted by a similar situation.  Furthermore, even when noticing completely wicked behavior, we may judge favorably by declaring that these individuals, though in the wrong, are not deserving of strict punishment.  If so, judging favorably is a personal insurance policy which protects us from strict Heavenly judgment.


Rabbi Nachman’s Teachings


The most famous teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, is probably his powerful lesson regarding judging others favorably.  He declares that we should realize that the way in which we look at others actually empowers us.  He states (Likkutei Moharan 1:282):


Know that you must judge all people favorably. This applies even to the worst of people. You must search until you find some little bit of good in them. In that good place inside them, they are not bad!  If you can just find this little bit of good and judge them favorably, you really can elevate them and swing the scales of judgment in their favor. This way you can bring them back to God… for by finding some little bit of good in them and judging them favorably, you genuinely raise them from guilt to merit...  Understand this well.


The way in which we look at others can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  A positive outlook on another can actually raise that individual’s level and empower him or her be the good person we see in them.


Judging Oneself Favorably


Up until this point, our focus has been on judging others.  However, Rabbi Nachman’s next startling remark shifts the focus: independent of judging others, judging ourselves favorably is also important.  True, we often judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, but that is only part of the story.  While often we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when we are quick to vilify others, often, deep inside, the opposite is true.  Often, we look at others in a positive light while we deride ourselves; after all, we know what goes on deep inside ourselves, and we cannot be so easily forgiving.  For this reason, Rabbi Nachman continues, even after one succeeds in judging others favorably, one must judge oneself favorably and must realize that this endeavor too has power.


You must also find the good in yourself. A fundamental principle in life is that you should always try to keep happy and steer well away from depression. When you start looking deep inside yourself, you may think you have no good in you at all. You may feel you are full of evil, and the negative voice inside you tries to make you depressed. Don't let yourself fall into depression. Search until you find some little good in you. How could it be that you never did anything good in your whole life?

When you start examining a good deed of yours, you may find that it has many flaws; perhaps you did it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude. Even so, how can it be that your mitzva or good deed contains no good at all?  It must contain some element of good.

You must search and search until you find some good point inside yourself to give you new life and make you happy. When you discover the good that is still in you, you genuinely move from being guilty to having merit. Through this you will be able to come back to God…

Earlier we saw that we have to judge other people favorably, even those who seem totally evil: we must search for their good points in order to swing the scales in their favor. The same applies to the way you look at yourself. You must judge yourself favorably and find the good points that still exist in you. This way, you will not fall into despair. The good you find inside you will give you new life and bring joy to your soul.


Rabbi Nachman points this out poignantly.  One must find good points not only in others, but in oneself as well, empowering him or her to live up to this good.


Difficulty, the Need for Prayer


In conclusion, judging others favorably is essential, despite the fact that it is often very difficult.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov composed a short prayer for assistance in finding the good in others (Likkutei Tefillot 117):


God Above, help me give each person the benefit of the doubt, even those who disagree with me…  And may this lead to true peace and unity among all of Israel!


One doesn’t have to be a Chasid in order to understand the importance of not falling into the trap of being judgmental.  After all, we all strive to be students of Avraham Avinu, possessing a good eye and a positive outlook.  Working on this formidable challenge will hopefully enable us not only to see the good, but to actualize it as well.