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How can I respect a lowlife?

Friday, 27 September, 2019 - 2:36 pm


Unity is a fundamental concept in Jewish teachings and culture but can be difficult to observe. When the Torah commands us “V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself,” paying lip service to Jewish brotherhood is insufficient. We are expected to truly love and respect each other as we do ourselves. Everyone.

To honestly live up to this divine expectation, our sages provided us with a fascinating lesson in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers): Judge every person to the side of merit.

On the surface this seems to be the same idea as the famous adage “Don't judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Since everyone lives unique lives, with respective circumstances and challenges, one should therefore never judge another for their poor choices and presume guilt.

But Pirkei Avot says something different. Not only must you not conclude that this person’s poor choices and bad deeds were done out of malice and assume the moral high ground - you should judge this pathetic human being “to the side of merit.” Simply put, realize that his or her bad behavior reflects on something meritorious about them!

What is that supposed to mean?

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of Adam, the first human being, who upon becoming conscious of reality immediately crowned G-d as King of the Universe. But on that same day he violated the one and only commandment he had from G-d, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and brought death and destruction to G-d’s perfect world.

How is it possible that Adam, crafted by “G-d’s hands,” did not have the basic self discipline to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit for a few hours? He had so many other delights to indulge in, was he really that desperate?

The Talmud declares “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination (for evil) is also greater.”

Adam’s temptation to sin was so powerful specifically because he possessed such a lofty soul capable of overcoming the challenge. Unfortunately he failed and we feel the impact until today, but the lesson for us is to realize that if someone is capable of stooping so low to commit sins unimaginable to us, it is because their potential is infinitely greater than our own.

Immoral and sinful behavior is never justified, nor should we tolerate it. We must learn to reject bad behavior while appreciating and embracing the great potential of the perpetrator. When we view every person based on their potential, their bad behavior should motivate us to work even harder to help them realize their great potential - which may very well yield results greater than our own.

As we approach the new year, let’s make an effort to reach out to someone who fits the above description and find ways to enable him or her to realize their fullest potential.


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