The Benefit of Doubt

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were camping in the forest. They were lying beneath the night sky.

Holmes said, “Watson, good man, look up! What do you see?”

Watson said, “I see thousands of stars.”

Holmes asked, “And, what does that mean to you?”

Watson said, “I suppose it means, of all the planets of the universe, we are truly fortunate to be here on earth. We are small in G-d’s eyes, but should struggle every day to be worthy of our blessings. In a meteorological sense, it means, we’ll have a sunny day tomorrow.”

And then Dr. Watson asked, “What does it mean to you, Holmes?”

And Holmes responded, “To me, it means that someone has stolen our tent!”

I want to think with you about what could best be described as “perception.” How we see things, but most importantly, how we see other people, is how our brain processes through the filter of our own projection.

We do not just see what is happening. We either see what we are afraid to see, or we see what others see; and sometimes, we see what we want to see.

A physician was talking about her four year old daughter. One day, on the way to preschool, the doctor had left her stethoscope on the car seat, and the little girl picked it up and began playing with it. The physician thought, “Be still my heart, my daughter wants to follow in my footsteps.”

Then the child spoke into the instrument: “Welcome to McDonalds. May I take your order?”

Leviticus 19:15 says, “You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich;” and then it ends, “betzedek tishpot amitecha.” Judge your fellow man fairly.”

That is a very different kind of commandment for us, as Jewish people. Usually, it is what we do that gets us in trouble. But here it is about doing something, judging; but the judging is happening in our brain. It is an action! And yet, it is something so important that the Torah
specifies it as, “a law,” in the holiness law code.

Maimonides once listed five transgressions, for which people who violate them, usually never repent. And he lists this verse as one of the five, for a very interesting reason. The verse is actually obliging us to give someone the benefit of the doubt. When we see someone performing
an action that might possibly be interpreted negatively, or might be considered positively, we have an obligation to go in the positive direction.
And yet, many of us go in the negative direction.

Maimonides teaches us that often people will mistakenly suspect an innocent person of doing wrong. They will never have said anything, just had the thought; and then when they find out the person was actually innocent, they will justify their suspicion by saying, “Well, I haven’t
really sinned, after all, I did that person no harm!” And they will never do repentance for that. In real life, they have just committed a violation of this very verse, of not judging our fellow human being fairly.

This commandment is telling us that we are obligated to give people the benefit of the doubt. Very specifically, the law is as follows, A pious G-d-fearing person is entitled to, and we must absolutely begin with the premise, of giving them the benefit of the doubt. Not just when there is a fifty-fifty chance that what they are doing may be good, rather than bad; but even or especially when it appears more likely that their actions were improper. If it is not a certainty that they were bad, this law would require that we still think of them in a positive way.

They have earned the benefit of our trust; and not the suspicion of their failure. They are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, as long as the possibility of what they did being good, is at least equal to being bad. With the average person, if the chances are greater that what they did was bad; was more likely be bad than good, then you are required to leave the matter undecided in your mind.

Even if you assume the worst in your mind; but you are forbidden to ever say anything to anyone else, because that would violate another prohibition, of malicious gossip, “lashon hara.”

A person who reaches a high level of perfection in his own character, will master what we perceive to be a paradox. She will be sensitive to all her own minor faults, but will overlook even the most obvious faults of others.

It is a dangerous thing to make assumptions from people’s behavior. Not dangerous just for them, but dangerous for what it does to our souls.

If we really do not know what is going on – why are we so quick to judge? No two people see the same thing; one person will see the sky and the other will see a stolen tent. No two people draw the same conclusion; and sometimes we just see things entirely differently. Give everybody the benefit of the doubt.

Rabbi Scolnic

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