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ב"ה

DO YOU JUDGE PEOPLE?

Friday, 24 May, 2024 - 1:09 am

A talented artist asked his gallery owner if anyone had shown interest in his paintings.

"I've got good news and bad news," she said. "The good news is that some guy inquired if your work will be appreciated after you die. 

When I told him that it would, he bought all 15 of your original paintings. He spent 4.9 million dollars on your paintings."

“That’s awesome,” exclaims the artist. “I can now retire in wealth. And the bad news?"  "That guy was your doctor."

In preparation for the Festival of Shavuot, it has become a tradition among Jewish communities worldwide to study the Ethics of the Fathers before the holiday.

 is an anthology of ethics, morality, and advice; by studying a chapter of the work each week, we hope some of its timeless wisdom and values will leave us a little more refined, 

and more receptive to the divine gift that is the Torah.

The opening of the third chapter pulls no punches, and offers this somber perspective straight off the bat:

Akavia says, “Consider three things so that you will not come to sin: Know where you came from, where you are going to, and to whom you are destined to give a verdict and an accounting.

The first two parts of Akavia’s advice are a humbling reminder of our mortality, our lowly origins “a seed,” and our gloomy ends “dirt, decay, and worms.” 

The third part is a sobering reference to our accountability for our actions, and our responsibilities here in this world we will eventually be called before the “King of kings,”

 to explain ourselves and give an account of the way we live our lives. We carry responsibility for our lives because Judaism believes we are not victims and cannot 

always blame others for the way we choose to behave.

But a peculiar nuance in the phrasing of that third clause is perplexing.

Outside of North Korea, Iran, the former Soviet Union, and some Muslim theocracies, most justice systems operate with a presumption of innocence, 

and the defendant gets to trial without a pre-determined verdict: The court considers the evidence, deliberates, and then decides. 

This notion is at the basis of all Jewish law, too. What is the meaning of the Mishna’s premonition of judgment in the Afterlife? 

You see, the Hebrew words used to signify the Divine Accounting are ‘din v’cheshbon’, literally ‘verdict and reckoning.’ 

But shouldn’t that phrase be reversed? The verdict doesn’t come before the reckoning! First, there should be an accounting, then the verdict, not conversely.

In another Mishnah in the same chapter,  we learn some more about the Divine  justice system:  

“Payment is exacted from Man with his knowledge, and without his knowledge.”

This seems like a blatant contradiction. Which one is it? Is it with his knowledge or without it?

So here we have two statements in this Chapter, the first from Akavia, the second from Rabbi Akiva. Both concern the workings of G-d’s justice system, 

which seems vastly at odds with our own.

The great Chassidic master, The Baal Shem Tov offers a fascinating answer to these two questions.

The Baal Shem Tov introduces his answer by exploring a tragic episode in the life of King David (whose yartzeit, like the Baal Shem Tov’s, is on the upcoming Holiday of Shavuot.)

The episode appears in the Book of Shmuel II and tells the deeply disturbing story of King David’s marriage to Bat-Sheva. The full analysis of the story of beyond the scope of our Torah today, but we do want to explore one fascinating detail in the story.

At that time King David had fully assumed the throne previously held by King Saul; he was wealthy and commanded an army led by his general Yoav. He was married with children. But when he catches sight of a young Jewish woman, Bat-Sheva, bathing on her roof one day, he decides to marry her as well. 

The major problem was that Bat-Sheva was already married to another man, Uriah, a loyal soldier under Yoav, who was on a tour of duty. Although the Talmud explains, that soldiers in King David’s army would as a matter of protocol divorce their wives before going to war, in case they were killed in battle, this was a disgraceful act. David remained together with Bat-Sheva, sent her husband to die in battle, and gave birth to a child.

The Tanach declares: “And the thing that David had done was bad in the eyes of the Lord.” And so, the story continues, the prophet Nathan, made his way to the palace, sent by G-d to speak truth to power.

But instead of immediately and openly berating the king for what he has done, the prophet Nathan begins with a story, a hypothetical case that he asks King David’s opinion on:

"There were two men in one city, one rich, and one poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, save one little lamb which he had bought… and it was to him like a daughter.  

And there came a wayfarer to the rich man, and the rich man felt bad to take of his flock and of his herd to prepare for the guest that had come to him, and he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared it for the man that had come to him."  

The heartless, greed of the rich man is shockingly obvious, and the injustice here is glaringly clear. This man has everything in the world, yet when he needs to feed his guest he steals the single lamb owned by the poor man! Nathan asks King David for his opinion of this story. What would be his verdict for this wealthy thief?

And David became very angry at the man; and he said to Nathan: "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this is liable to death. And the lamb he shall repay fourfold because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."  

And Nathan said to David: "You are that man!” 

Suddenly the curtain is drawn back. David’s righteous fury crumbles away as he is forced to confront the shame of his wrongdoing.

David then declares two words that made him the legend he remains in Jewish history: “I have sinned to G-d.”

David does not rationalize, find excuses, blame others, or punish Nathan for daring to challenge the king. Just imagine a monarch living 3000 years ago, in a world where kings were seen as demigods, yielding absolute control over their subjects being accused of criminal behavior. To accuse the king of being a criminal was a death sentence for the accuser. Yet in this case, David responds with those unforgettable words: “I have sinned to G-d.” For the remainder of his life,  David would repent.

But why the need for a dramatic presentation? Why could Nathan not come to David and say it as is: My King! You have committed a terrible act. Thus shall be the consequences? Why the need to tell a parable and have David determine the verdict for the man in the parable and then apply that verdict to David himself?

David was ultimately a righteous person who confessed his errors and repented he was fully capable of accepting criticism and acknowledging his mistakes. So why the big megillah? Nathan should have just come in and laid down G-d’s law, without needing David to decide the law for himself.

The Baal Shem Tov presents an extraordinary answer. In G-d’s system of justice, the only one who can issue forth a verdict on yourself is you, nobody else. By asking David to adjudicate in what was essentially his case, Nathan the prophet ensured that it was David who declared his verdict!

Why is it so?  Is G-d’s modus operandi with each of us and David was no exception.

When it comes our time to stand before the heavenly throne, says the Baal Shem Tov, heaven will not list off our good deeds and negative ones and reward or punish us. No way! Each one of us will present our verdict for our own lives! Each one of us is the one who decides where he or she belongs, and what process is necessary for the “therapy” “cleaning” and “recovery” of his or her soul.

This works most fascinatingly: Throughout our entire life we are allowed to “judge people.” Every day of our lives we see and hear people behaving in certain ways from our spouses to our sisters-in-law; from our friends to our children.

But be careful how you judge people. Do you know why? Not only because you never know the full story, nor do you know their inner struggles, but also because you are essentially judging yourself! G-d is placing all of these situations before you, day in and day out, to allow you to determine how you should be judged when the time comes. 

Each person is unwittingly turned advocate and prosecutor for his or her case. Thus the above Mishnah states:  “Payment is exacted from Man with his knowledge, and without his knowledge.”

This is why the Mishnah states that our verdict precedes the accounting and reckoning. Only once the defendant himself has legislated, do the proceedings get personal.

They tell the story of a defendant who was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence indicating guilt, but there was no corpse. The dead body somehow vanished.

In the defense's closing statement, the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, resorted to a trick: "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all, the lawyer said as he looked at his watch. "Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom."

He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened. 

Finally, the lawyer said, "Actually, I made up the previous statement. But you all looked on with anticipation. I therefore put it to you that there is reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty."

The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. A few minutes later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty. "But how?" inquired the lawyer. "You must have had some doubt, I saw all of you stare at the door."

The jury foreman replied: "Oh, we looked, but your client didn't…"

The defendant himself was the one who established his guilt.

Hence, the Talmud states: "One who judges his fellow man favorably, will in turn be judged favorably." This can now be understood more than being treated as "measure for measure" or some poetic, Talmudic karma. The sages meant the statement literally, as a description of the actual mechanics of G-d’s judgment.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way.” This is how Victor Frankl summed up his experiences at Auschwitz.

This is the most important idea in life: You have to know how great you are. You must be aware of how large, sublime, holy, Divine, and awesome your neshama is. You need to understand that you are not only a small person, who loves ice cream, money, and some fun you are  a piece of Hashem, of G-d, who has journeyed down from the highest places to transform this cold and dark world. That is why ultimately no one can tell you where to go besides yourself. That is why you are capable of living such an empowered, inspired, and holy life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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