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The Power of Dan L'Kaf Zechut - Judging Favorably

Parshat Metzora famously begins, “Zot Torat Hametzora – this is the law of the individual who contracts ‘tzara’at’” (the modern translation of “tzara’at” is leprosy, but Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, among others, convincingly demonstrates from the laws of “tzara’at” that the afflication of tzara'at is not synonymous with leprosy or any other disease for that matter; as such, we will avoid use of the word “leprosy”).

The gemara (Arachin 15b) explains that “torat hametzora” is a contraction of “torat hamotzi shem ra” – the laws governing someone who slanders others.  This “Notarikon” reinforces the common understanding that contracting “tzara’at” is a punishment for speaking “loshon hara” (which includes slander that is false, as well as character assassination that is true – in other words, under Jewish law, the fact that a negative statement about another person is true does not exempt the speaker).

In his sefer Chafetz Chaim, the Chafetz Chaim provides a lengthy list of negative and positive commandments violated when a person speaks lashon hara. Indeed, the sheer length of the list helps explain the meaning of the statement in the gemara (Arachin 15b) that one who speaks lashon hara has sins that “reach to the sky.”

One of the positive mitzvos in the Torah violated by those who speak loshon hara, according to the Chafetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chaim 3:11), is “b’tzedek tishpot et amitecha.” This verse is the source of the obligation to judge people favorably – i.e., to be “dan l’kaf zechut.” In this vein, the Chofetz Chaim claims that all the episodes in the Torah concerning “lashon hara” – such as the spies and Miriam – were caused by a failure to observe the mitzvah of dan l’kaf zechut.

As it turns out, the trait of dan l’kaf zechut is not merely about avoiding premature judgment of others.  It is much more than that. In a positive sense, the trait of dan l’kaf zechut holds the key to success in many spheres of life, including choosing the right shidduch (i.e., marriage partner), earning a parnassa (i.e., a living), and having bitachon (faith) in Hashem.

Let us begin with the process of choosing a marriage partner. Many people are familiar with the story of Rachelle Friedman, the young bride who, in 2010, was paralyzed from the neck down after being pushed into the pool by a friend at her bachelorette party.

Despite her tragic injury, Rachelle and her fiancé, Chris Chapman, ultimately still got married. “I never once thought about leaving her or the situation,” Chris later told the media. “It was simply a matter of ‘We are a couple. We’re going to get through this.” (see story here).

The explanation for Chris’ devotion to Rachelle is simple: his love for her was not dependent on her physical condition. Instead, he loved her for who she was as a person – her core values and character traits. This appreciation for Rachelle’s essence allowed Chris to remain fully committed despite the tragic change in circumstances.  As Pirkei Avot (5:19) states, “Ahava sh’eina teluyah b’davar mitkayemet -  a love that is not dependent on a “davar” – a physical, material attribute – but rather spiritual qualities - is destined to endure.”

Remarkably, the gemara (Sotah 11b-12a) shares a similar story concerning the marriage of Calev and Miriam. It is truly a heartwarming narrative that sheds important light on what attitudes are critical, and which are not, to choosing a marriage partner.

The gemara derives the story behind the marriage of Calev and Miriam from the following verse in Divrei Hayamim I (2:18):

v’Calev ben Chetzron holid et Azuvah isha v’et Yerios, v’eleh baneha – Yesher, Shovav, and Ardon.”

Calev son of Chetzron sired Azuvah, wife, and Yerios, and these are her sons – Yesher, Shovav and Ardon.”

The gemara first asks why the verse refers to Calev as the son of Chetzron when we know from Sefer Bamidbar (13:6) that Calev was the son of Yefuneh. The gemara answers that Calev ‘s father was named Chetzron, but he is referred to as the son of Yefuneh in Bamidbar because Calev turned away – “panah”  - from the plot of the meraglim (spies). This seemingly innocuous observation has a much deeper meaning, as we shall see.

The gemara next identifies “Azuvah” in the verse from Divrei Hayamim as Miriam. Why is she referred to as Azuvah? The gemara, as elucidated by Rashi, explains that when Miriam was single, she was very sickly, and no man wanted to marry her. That is, all the eligible bachelors “abandoned” (azav) Miriam until Calev decided to wed her. As the gemara further explains, the word “Yerios” in the verse from Divrei Hayamim literally means “curtains,” which alludes to Miriam’s pale complexion, which was similar to undyed curtains.

However, if Calev married Miriam, then why does the verse use the word “holid” – which implies that Miriam (Azuvah) was Calev’s child? Rav Yochanan explains, “Whoever marries a woman l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), it is as if he fathered her.” Why this is the case, and how it applies to the marriage of Calev and Miriam, remains to be seen.

The gemara next interprets the phrase “v’eleh baneha”  as “boneha” – her builders. That is, rather than referring to actual sons, the word “baneha” refers to Caleb as the “boneh” (builder) of Miriam because Calev took care of all of Miriam’s needs when she was ill, and thereby helped her develop into a fulfilled wife and mother. In fact, Calev’s rehabilitation efforts were so successful that, the gemara later states (based on a second series of verses in Divrei Hayamim I, 4:5), upon being restored to full health, Miriam was regarded as the most beautiful woman in all of Israel.

The gemara concludes by explaining that the three names at the end of the verse – Yesher, Shovav, and Ardon – ostensibly referring to the sons of Calev and Miriam, actually refer to Calev himself as well.  Each name references another aspect of Calev conquering his yetzer hara, and thereby avoiding the sin of the meraglim.

The gemara’s narrative regarding Calev and Miriam raises many questions. First, why did Calev marry Miriam despite her illness (so severe that no one else was willing to wed her)? Second, why does Calev’s choice cause the verse to refer to Miriam as his child? And third, why does the gemara’s explanation of the verses shift back and forth between Calev’s relationship with Miriam, and Calev resisting the plot of spies? What is the connection between those two episodes?

Rashi states that Calev married Miriam because he knew that her brothers, Moshe and Aaron, were righteous, and the gemara (Baba Batra 110a) states that a woman’s sons typically follow the traits of their uncles. Thus, Calev hoped that marrying Miriam would result in wonderful sons (which, in fact, occurred -- Miriam and Calev fathered Chur who assisted Aaron in holding up Moshe’s hands during the battle of Amalek, and later died tragically when he protested against the chet ha’egel). However, I would suggest that, analyzed more deeply, Rashi’s explanation adverts to something about Miriam herself that attracted Calev.

As noted, the Chafetz Chaim explains that speaking loshon hara violates the rule of “dan l’kaf zechut” (judging favorably), and that  all the episodes in the Torah concerning “lashon hara” – such as the spies – were caused by a failure to judge favorably.

What is the fundamental character trait that allows someone to judge others favorably? It is the ability and willingness of an individual to look beyond the superficial externalities of another person’s conduct, and attempt to understand the essence of what is going on. That is, I withhold judgment of superficial appearances until I can ascertain the true facts.

The ability to see past superficial exteriors is precisely what enabled Calev to resist the “loshon harah” of the spies. Whereas the other spies saw only the might of the inhabitants of Cana’an and slandered the Land of Israel, Calev judged the Land of Israel favorably. That is, he looked beyond the challenge of conquering the Land and focused on the Land’s positive qualities (“tova m’od m’od”), and thereby understood its potential.

As the Chofetz Chaim explains, whereas the other spies did not judge the Land of Israel favorably because of difficult circumstances that appeared (on the surface) to signal defeat, Calev was able to see past these circumstances and appreciate the potential of the Land.

This same ability to look past externalities and appreciate essence is what motivated Calev to marry Miriam when no other man would do so. Pirkei Avot (4:27) instructs, “Don’t look at the flask, but at what is in it.” Calev knew what character traits and values he was looking for in a wife, and surmised that Miriam possessed them based on her family background. Indeed, Calev may have even experienced Miriam’s potential firsthand insofar as the gemara relates that Miriam played a pivotal role in persuading her father, Amram, a leader of the generation, to remarry Yocheved after Amram had ended his marriage in response to the decrees of Pharaoh (see gemara Sotah 12a). Miriam also demonstrated tremendous yiras shamayim in defying Pharaoh’s directives to the midwives to murder all the Jewish boys (Sotah 11b). Calev may have been aware of this display of courage as well.

In short, Calev was able to look beyond Miriam’s poor physical condition (a condition which could certainly change), and see the potential within her to be a wonderful wife and mother who would help him raise an exemplary family. And sure enough, due to Calev’s devotion, Miriam’s physical condition improved, and she reached her potential not only as a wife and as a mother, but as a beloved matriarch of Bnei Yisroel.

The message for us is clear – it is foolhardy to pursue or reject a shidduch based solely on external conditions and circumstances – physical condition, financial situation, possessions – that could change over time.  To be sure, this is not to say that there are some circumstances that may require considerable reflection as to whether they are too serious to surmount given a realistic assessment of the capabilities of the parties involved. That said, a successful shidduch must ultimately be founded on shared values and character traits that will not change over time, and that will thus enable a couple to respond as one mind (i.e., in synch) to any challenges in life that may arise.

Incidentally, there’s a second lesson here as well in the story of Calev and Miriam. It is that what builds love between two people is unselfish giving. The kind of giving motivated by an awareness of the other person’s potential, and the desire to help him or her achieve it.

In their manual on dating strategies from a Torah perspective, Speed Dating, Yaakov and Sue Deyo recommend that readers involved in a dating relationship ask themselves the following question  – “Do I see in this person such a vista of potential that I want to spend the rest of my life helping to make her or him great?”

Undoubtedly, Calev was able to answer this question, with respect to Miriam, with a resounding “Yes.” That is, notwithstanding Miriam’s poor physical condition, Calev saw in Miriam such potential that he was prepared to attend to all of her medical needs and nurture her back to health until she realized this potential. This was true, unselfish giving of the highest order made possible by Calev’s willingness to look beyond Miriam’s physical condition at the core values and traits that they shared.

By the same token, Calev’s ability to look past the challenges of conquering the Land of Israel and see its potential gave him the strength to oppose the other spies.

We’ve thus answered two of our questions. The connection between the episode of the spies and Calev’s courtship of Miriam is that both exemplify Calev’s ability to look beyond superficial circumstances and uncover the essence of a person (i.e., Miriam) or of a thing (i.e., the Land of Israel). Thus, Calev wed Miriam because he looked beyond Miriam’s circumstances at her potential, and he resisted the plot of the spies because he focused on the potential of the Land of Israel and looked past the challenge of conquering the seemingly invincible inhabitants.

Still, why does the verse refer to Miriam as Calev’s child? The answer is that the love of a parent for a child is not affected by circumstances. Have you ever met a parent that does not judge his or her child favorably? A child can find himself or herself in the most difficult circumstances, and yet the parent’s love will remain steadfast. The reason is that a parent appreciates the inner qualities of each child, and desires nothing more than for each child to reach his or her potential. And the parent is prepared to give what it takes until this potential is realized irrespective of circumstances that may make achieving that potential difficult from time to time. The lesson for us is that the key to an enduring and fulfilling marital relationship is an attempt on the part of both spouses to replicate the parent-child relationship – that is, looking past circumstances, and giving with the goal of helping each person in the relationship achieve his or her potential. Because Calev did this for Miriam, the Torah considers him as her “father” as well.

Aside from being critical to choosing the right marriage partner, for similar reasons, the trait of “judging favorably” can also be a key ingredient for success in business. Aren’t we all familiar with the phrase “diamond in the rough?” The phrase relates to the fact that naturally occurring diamonds are quite ordinary at first glance, and that their true beauty as jewels is only realized through the cutting and polishing process. More broadly, the  phrase is used to describe assets with exceptional characteristics that are not immediately apparent because the asset lacks the outer trappings that would allow it to stand out as an item of value. It takes a special business visionary to see the value, and invest while others are fearful of doing so until the underlying value is realized. Indeed, in the biography of the Reichmann family, The Reichmanns, the author quotes Paul Reichmann as tracing his success to his ability to see value in certain real estate before others.

But even beyond helping us to select the right marriage partner, and achieve success in the material world, the quality of judging favorably is the foundation of emuna and bitachon.  How so?  

In Gevurot Hashem (perek 18, s.v. v’tiviayhu ), the Maharal discusses why it was necessary for Moshe to grow up in Pharoah’s house, rather than the typical “frum” household in Egypt. The Maharal explains that sanctity is often hidden within the mundane and the profane.  To illustrate the point, Maharal analogizes to a fruit. In the early stages of its development, the core of the fruit is hidden within the outer peel until it becomes fully ripe, at which point we can cut off the peel to reveal the succulent fruit within.

Similarly, individuals of particularly exceptional spiritual stature will often spend their formative years within a distinctly materialistic environment until their development is complete and they emerge and people begin to recognize their greatness (why this is the case is beyond the scope of this essay, but the concept has tremendous implications for Jewish history).

The notion of finding greatness hidden within the mundane is the foundation of the belief that “kol d’avid rachmana, l’tav avid – all that Hashem does is for the good.” That is, while it is not often immediately apparent, hidden within seemingly difficult and challenging circumstances is the seed of something positive and uplifting. As a result, even when confronted with difficult and challenging circumstances, we can have faith that there is an ultimately positive outcome hidden within those circumstances that will become apparent over time. This gives us the strength to endure. In short, nurturing the trait of “judging favorably” can strengthen our bitachon in Hashem.

With the above understanding of judging favorably, the meaning of the tzara’at condition becomes crystal clear. Tzara’at is a condition affecting the skin of a person, the surface of garments, or the walls of house. Why is this the case? When a person speaks loshon hara, he or she is essentially focusing on the external circumstances of a person and interpreting it as their essence. Loshon hara is a failure to look past externals and seek to understand essence. As such, the individual is afflicted with a condition that affects their skin, or the surface of their garments or house.

An individual with tzara’at is also banished from society. The gemara (Arachin 16b) explains this is because someone who speaks loshon hara promotes strife that undermines the most basic relationships in society – husband and wife, and close friends. Based on the discussion above, we can understand this explanation more fully.  That is, as discussed, when a person makes judgments based on external conditions or circumstances, he or she is likely to err grievously concerning the true essence of a person or situation. Were others to adopt such an attitude it would completely undermine their ability to build successful relationships. Society would break down. Therefore, a person who promotes this kind of thinking must be banished from society until they recognize their error.

In conclusion, we can say that the concept of "judging favorably" underlying the laws of loshon hara hold the key to success in many areas of life to the extent that is quite worth our while to invest time in nurturing this trait.

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