Do you feel that you are a good judge of people? Personality, potential effectiveness at work, ability to get along with other folks, and so forth?
I do not have much confidence in my own ability to judge people, and I have been thinking about this lately, mostly in the abstract, because of our search for an Assistant Rabbi.
I tend to see the good in everybody, and I assume the best of intentions even when evidence is clearly to the contrary. It might be because I grew up in a small town in rural New England, where we just sort of assumed that the people around us were all good and well-intentioned. Or maybe it’s just my personality – I am a naturally trusting person. Or perhaps I should thank my parents for raising me to be non-judgmental.
Fortunately, seeing the good in everybody, and a willingness to overlook deficiencies in others comports well with rabbinic wisdom on the subject. In Pirqei Avot, for example, a second-century CE collection of rabbinic wisdom, we read the following:
יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, … הֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת
Yehoshua ben Peraḥiah taught:.. When you judge others, tip the balance in their favor.
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, … אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ
Hillel taught: … Do not judge another until you stand in her/his situation.
When we are assessing the character or choices of others, it is upon us to do so generously, to understand that we might only see a part of the story, that we might misinterpret their motivations, and that we should therefore put a finger on the scale in their favor. The rabbinic shorthand invoked by Pirqei Avot is “kaf zekhut” – literally the pan of a metaphorical scale containing one’s merits, as opposed to the one containing the liabilities, when those characteristics are being evaluated. It is our obligation to incline toward kaf zekhut where possible.
Humans are complicated; even those who are generally good-natured can make mistakes, or can be swayed by the forces and situations around them. We all have the potential to make the wrong choices, and sometimes we do, but those errors in judgment do not necessarily crowd out one’s overall good intentions.
And, of course one of the other features of rabbinic Judaism is that our tradition provides us avenues for self-improvement: teshuvah, of course, repentance, but also guides for living such as the framework of mitzvot and the ethical considerations that come with them. Our tradition, and our people, are naturally self-reflective, perhaps in a way that does not comport with contemporary society and the current rapid pace of life, and the reduction of human communications to two-dimensional, 280-character pronouncements.
The complexity of humanity, it seems, is getting harder for us to wrap our brains around, when our only choices are to “like” or “not like” something. You have to be for or against, yes or no, vaccinated or unvaccinated, etc.
But we are not binary creatures, limited to ones and zeroes. And that is surely true of the Avot and Imahot, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the dysfunctional family featured in the book of Bereshit / Genesis.
Parashat Vayḥi, which concluded that book this morning, includes the captivating scene just prior to Ya’aqov’s death, when he poetically addresses his 12 sons. Most are pleasant words, blessing-like descriptors, which bode well for the tribes they represent.
But given the idea of kaf zekhut, of judging others with a generous eye, there is one passage that has long captured my attention, when Ya’aqov actually distances himself, on his deathbed, from Shim’on and Levi. (You may recall that I am descended from the tribe of Levi, and so Ya’aqov’s words sting with an ancient, generational pain.)
שִׁמְע֥וֹן וְלֵוִ֖י אַחִ֑ים כְּלֵ֥י חָמָ֖ס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶֽם׃
בְּסֹדָם֙ אַל־תָּבֹ֣א נַפְשִׁ֔י בִּקְהָלָ֖ם אַל־תֵּחַ֣ד כְּבֹדִ֑י כִּ֤י בְאַפָּם֙ הָ֣רְגוּ אִ֔ישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָ֖ם עִקְּרוּ־שֽׁוֹר׃
אָר֤וּר אַפָּם֙ כִּ֣י עָ֔ז וְעֶבְרָתָ֖ם כִּ֣י קָשָׁ֑תָה אֲחַלְּקֵ֣ם בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַאֲפִיצֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.
This is, really, a shocking passage. These are Ya’aqov’s final words to two of his sons. Where is the kaf zekhut? What on Earth could Shim’on and Levi have done that warranted such harsh words from their father?
Well, it ain’t pretty. They slaughtered the family of Hamor and his son Shekhem, members of the Hivite tribe (one of several Canaanite tribes).
In brief, Shekhem took Ya’aqov’s daughter Dinah* by force. When he subsequently asks for her hand in marriage, Ya’aqov and family insist that Hamor agrees to circumcise all of the adult males in their clan. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men are all in pain, in come Shim’on and Levi to kill them all, claiming that they are defending the honor of their sister. It is a brutal, shocking story on all fronts, and their actions are difficult to defend. (Bereshit chapter 34, Parashat Vayyishlaḥ)
Did you miss that one in Hebrew school? Yeah, I thought so. It doesn’t make for good family discussions in the car ride home.
Was Ya’aqov justified in cursing two of his sons? Was it the right thing to effectively estrange himself from them, saying, “Let not my being be counted in their assembly”? Could he not have allowed for the possibility that they have done teshuvah, that they have repented? To me this is quite jarring. It seems exactly the opposite of the principle of kaf zekhut. Could he not, on his deathbed, have found at least something positive to say?
So he must have had a reason for doing so, and also for promising that these two tribes (and particularly the Levites) would be spread among the other tribes. In later centuries, the tribe of Levi had no tribal land of their own, but as religious functionaries lived throughout the region, so at least this aspect of the backstory checks out.
The 15th-century Spanish commentator Yitzḥaq ben Moshe Arama (who, by the way, fled the Inquisition in 1492 and died two years later in Naples) teaches us that
Ya’aqov here utters a truth which Aristotle has publicized in his Ethics. Anger and temper, though undesirable qualities, may sometimes prove useful in arousing heroism in people. Soldiers in battle are spurred to bravery and courage by anger and indignation… [Ya’aqov believed that] it was advisable that the qualities of anger and passion that had been concentrated in Shim’on and Levi should be dispersed among all the tribes of Israel… A little spread everywhere would prove useful, but if concentrated in one place, would be dangerous.
Arama’s theory is that too much anger is extreme, but a little bit is helpful. It seems as though Ya’aqov, in acknowledging the complexity of human personalities and emotion, is distancing himself from two of his sons as a protective measure. He wants their characteristic anger distributed throughout the Israelite nation, dilute enough to be safe, but nonetheless available when warranted.
How might we interpret this for us today?
Each of us reflect, in some sense, the range of personality that Ya’aqov sees in his sons. We are sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes down, sometimes yearnful, and so forth. None of us are entirely angry, or entirely happy, or 100% of any particular aspect of humanity.
In assessing others with kaf zekhut, giving the benefit of the doubt, we should do our best to remember that sometimes we are ruled by our emotions, and hope that the Shim’ons and the Levis within us are kept at bay, and that we see instead the lion of Judah, the fair judgment of Dan, the richness of Asher, the natural beauty of Naftali.
So, whether you are inclined to see the good or the bad in people, it is worth remembering that all of us are blessed with a rich variety of traits, not easily separated from one another, or discerned at first glance. When we are judging others, we should keep this in mind while trying to view the entire picture. That is what Ya’aqov teaches us with his final words.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/17/2021.)
* Despite her hardship, long-suffering Dinah does not get a deathbed blessing from her father. *sigh*