There is an American Indian proverb that says, “Never criticize another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”
The Jewish classic, Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) echoes this same principle in these words, “Do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his position.”
In the discussion regarding Yom Kippur contained in the first of this week’s two Torah portions, the High Priest is instructed to wear only four simple garments like those worn by the rank and file of the priests instead of his own very special and majestic eight garments. Hashem intended through this mitzvah that the High Priest, by lowering himself to the simple dress of the other priests, would find it easier to relate to all the ordinary people of Israel for whom he would make atonement during the Yom Kippur service.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, taught his followers that to comfort and encourage those who were suffering required that we humble ourselves to their level, to do all we can to understand their suffering and freely give honest empathy and compassion along with support. Even when people are suffering because of their own bad decisions, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the suffering and consider that we, too, could have made the same incorrect decisions in our own lives (and probably have at other times!) and therefore we have no legitimate right to judge and criticize.
A psychology professor I knew years ago used to say that most people don’t intentionally make “bad” decisions; they misread information they receive, or they have insufficient information regarding the decision needed, or they fail to think through possible consequences of the decision they are making. Later when the results of that decision prove less than positive or effective, there is “suffering” in one form or another. At that point, how many of us have experienced the insensitivity of those who are too ready to criticize and judge? Additionally, and more importantly, how many times have we been the ones to criticize and judge our brother or sister?
Making assumptions about other people, their thoughts, their intentions,and their motives is absolutely forbidden by the Torah. Truly we do NOT know the heart intentions of others and therefore we have no reliable basis for passing judgments. Only a mother who has lost an infant can truly understand that pain. Only a cancer survivor truly understands the ugliness of the disease and the struggle to overcome. Only an overworked, utterly stressed and exhausted single mother truly knows the emotional and physical effort it takes to raise her two or three children without a loving caring husband by her side. Careless comments and casual platitudes spoken in such situations only add to the person’s pain.
The Ba’al Shem Tov continually stressed the importance of loving our fellow unconditionally. In our modern world it is often difficult to find “unconditional” love. Far too often, love is measured by performance. In simple terms, “if you act the way I expect you to act, I will love you. If not, my love will be measured out in reduced doses.” Now we may never say it that bluntly, but our actions do.
Is that how Hashem treats us? Absolutely not. The greatest example is when the children of Israel were in the Wilderness. They rebelled, they complained, they built a Golden Calf. They were rebuked and disciplined by G-d BUT – please note – the manna did not stop falling, the Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire did not disappear! The manifestation of Hashem’s love never changed because His love is unconditional. In reality, even the discipline was a manifestation of His love but the discipline was always given with compassion.
We are called to love each other according to His example.
Humbling ourselves to feel – to truly feel – the struggles and hardships of another is a great mitzvah for it is essentially a splendid demonstration of unselfishness, of doing exactly what we quoted above, “Do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his position.” The bottom line to this concept is this: if you will make the effort to put yourself in that other person’s shoes,
you will quickly lose the tendency to criticize and judge precisely because of better understanding.
In Tune with Torah this week = repenting for a critical or judgmental attitude and re-committing ourselves to love our fellow unconditionally, striving to better grasp what it is they are going through and expressing appropriate compassion and honest support as needed.