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.