The wedding was magnificent. A beautiful chuppah took place on the beach as the sun set, and then it was time to go inside for the reception. I looked at my place card and went to my assigned table. When I got there, I was startled to discover that I was seated at a table of the chassan’s young friends, many of whom I had never met. I looked around the ballroom and noticed both a rabbis’ table and a table of community members, either one of which would have been a much more logical placement for me. I engaged in great conversation with the young men at my table and I enjoyed the evening, but I must admit, I was bewildered and confused as to why I was put at that table. To be honest, I was more than just perplexed. I was insulted and offended and felt somewhat singled out.
The final dance concluded, sheva brachos were recited, and I headed to the valet to retrieve my car. I reached into my suit pocket for the ticket, and immediately I felt like a fool. In my pocket were two place cards that looked exactly alike, with nearly identical envelopes and calligraphy. In truth, I had been assigned to sit at the table with my peers. Unbeknownst to me, however, a place card from a different wedding had remained in my pocket, and when the time came to find my seat, I had taken that old place card out instead of the one I had been assigned at this wedding.
The Gemara (Bava Basra 60b) tell us, “Keshot atzmecha v’achar kach keshot acheirim,” which is usually translated as, “Correct yourself first and only then correct others.” Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests an alternative translation. The word keshot appears a number of times in the tefillah of Berich Shmeih — as in Oraisei keshot u’neviohi keshot — and it means “truth.” Based on this, Rav Hirsch explains the mandate of our rabbis as, be truthful with yourself and only then examine others.
They say that when you point a finger at someone else, three more point back at you. In my case, it became obvious and undeniable that although I was pointing a finger at my hosts for having seated me in the wrong place, the blame lay entirely with me.
Often, life is more complicated and less clear. And yet how often do we rush to judgment, failing to pause and reflect on our role in any given situation? How often do we draw unfavorable conclusions regarding those around us, even our good friends?
The Mishnah (Avos 1:6) tells us: Aseh lecha rav u’kneh lecha chaver, v’hevei dan es kol ha’adam l’chaf zechus — Make yourself a rav and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person in a favorable manner. What is the connection between the injunction to give the benefit of the doubt and the imperative to acquire a friend?
Rav Menachem Benzion Sacks, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, explains that the capacity to give the benefit of the doubt is a prerequisite to being a good friend. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has flaws and deficiencies. Shlomo Hamelech, in his great wisdom, observed, “Ki adam ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher yaaseh tov v’lo yecheta — there are no fully righteous people in the world who only do good and never fall short.”
We cannot have real, meaningful, and enriching friendships if we cannot favorably judge the people we interact with. Nobody wants to be judged negatively. None of us wants to be caught, criticized, or condemned by our friends.
To be a good friend means to allow other people to be imperfect and vulnerable and to give them the confidence that you will be loyal — which means giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best, whenever possible.
So they didn’t e-mail, text, or call you back immediately. Perhaps they never received your message or were preoccupied with a pressing matter. So they haven’t reciprocated by inviting you for a Shabbos or Yom Tov meal. Maybe they cannot afford to entertain guests, or they are insecure in their ability to host a proper or meaningful Shabbos or Yom Tov seudah. So they said hello and shook hands with others at the kiddush or simchah and ignored you like you were invisible. Maybe they simply didn’t see you or were distracted at the moment.
To be a good friend is to be forgiving, flexible, and willing to cut others slack. It is to see the best in them, not look for the worst. To find an excuse or explanation for their behavior, not to compile the evidence to support a case against them.
Of course, not everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, nor does everyone deserve our friendship. But if we seek to develop lasting friendships and acquire real friends, not just passing acquaintances, we must be more forbearing, and train ourselves to give the benefit of the doubt and not jump to assume the worst.
Rav Menachem Benzion Sacks points out that the Mishnah subtly includes a strategy for judging others favorably. Rather than say hevei dan ha’adam l’chaf zechus it says hevei dan es kol ha’adam l’chaf zechus, judge the entire person favorably. The key to drawing positive conclusions is to look at the entire person, including his finest qualities and your whole history with him, rather than concentrate on the isolated negative incident alone. To be a good friend is to see the totality of the person, including who he strives to be, and not just focus on the reality of that particular moment.
Next time you are tempted to point your finger at another, check your pocket. You may just find that the fault lies with you.