Belittling others

Many people belittle others to promote themselves. The truth is that you dont need to put someone else down in order to build yourself up. In the synagogue of the Hasidic rebbe known as the Sfat Emet (1847-1905), there was a great deal of pushing and shoving. The Rebbe refused to enter until it subsided. "Why do you object to the commotion," the Rebbe was asked. "When your father was rebbe there was no less pushing and he never complained?" "It is true," answered the Sfat Emet, "that there was also pushing then. There was a difference, however. Then each person pushed himself forward; now each person is pushing the other away!" Its fine to be competitive, but your advancements should not be achieved by undermining another.

Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1860-1920) had two sons. The older boy was shorter than his younger brother and resented it deeply. One day their father noticed the older boy nudge his younger brother into a ditch to appear taller than him. His father summoned his eldest son and delivered this message: "Its fine to want to build yourself up; just dont do so by putting someone else down. Dont promote yourself at someone elses expense." Sound advice indeed. A young was learning to read Hebrew. The teacher told him that two yuds together represent the name of Hashem. When the child reached the end of the sentence he read the two dots that signify the end of a verse [:] as Hashems name. "Thats a full stop," explained the teacher. "Only when the two yuds a standing side by side does it refer to God. If one yud is standing above the other it simply signifies that its come to the end." Hashem is to be found where two Jews (yuds) are standing as equals, not when one insists on lording over the other.

The Rabbis (Leviticus Rabbah 34:4) reserved particularly harsh words for those for whom life is already tough enough: "He who made one person poor can also make him rich, and He who make the other rich can also make him poor. If the rich man says to the poor man: Why do you not go and work and get food? Look at those hips! Look at those legs! Look at that fat body! Look at those lumps of flesh! The Holy One Blessed is He, says to the rich person: It is not enough that you have not given him anything of yours and helped him out, but you must mock what I have given him?" The Bible warns (Leviticus 19:14) not to curse or insult a deaf person. The deaf person cannot hear you cruel barbs, but it is still wrong. All the more so it is wrong to say hurtful remarks to a person who hear what you are saying.

Benefit of the doubt

Some is late to a meeting, forgets to send you a card for your birthday or is investigated by the Tax authorities - how do you interpret these events? Do you assume that the other person must have a good reason for his or her actions, or do you work on the basis that they are in the wrong?

Traditional Jewish is replete with teachings about the importance of thinking the best about other peoples behaviour. Where there is no certainty that another has committed a wrong, we are urged to "Judge all people favourably" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6). The Bible (Leviticus ) states "with justice you shall judge your fellow," upon which the Rabbis teach (Sifra 2:4) that we should give the person the benefit of the doubt. But why should we do so? Another Jewish teaching adds clarification: "do not judge your fellow unless you are in his place" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5). We have limited knowledge with which to make judgements about others. We dont live in their skin; we dont experience their struggles and challenges. It is very difficult for us to know why people act as they do, for as the Bible says (I Samuel 16:7), "Man looks at the outward appearance, but God sees into the heart." So we are cautioned against jumping to conclusions. Accusing someone falsely is regarded as a terrible thing to do in Jewish ethics (Talmud Shabbat 77a), and that if someone lacks this virtue and suspects others, he will himself be suspected by others. It can cause irreparable damage to their reputation, when no wrong was committed.

Therefore, writes Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz: "To judge every person favourably is a praiseworthy quality. It avoids strife and dissention and leads to peace on earth." In fact, one of the confessions on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is for the sin of passing judgement. The Rabbis (Talmud Shabbat 77a) taught that one who judges other favourably will himself be judged favourably by God." The Bible (I Samuel) tells the story of Eli the High Priest accused Hanna of being a drunkard woman, when in fact she was devout and deep in prayer. When he realised his error, he apologised and blessed her profusely. The Rabbis (Talmud Berachot 31b) concluded from this that if one accuses someone falsely it is incumbent upon the person to ask for forgiveness and to make up the indiscretion through sharing kind words. The Midrash (Leviticus Rabba 9:3) tells a story about Rabbi Yannai who has insulted an ignorant man who dressed as a scholar. It transpired that while no scholar, the man who a virtuous individual who brought peace between people. The Rabbi appeased the man saying, "here you are such a wonderful person and I had insulted you." A contemporary Rabbi, Zelig Pliskin, recommends that people actively formulate plausible excuses for slights against them, much we would hope others would do for us.

A great sage, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, was an expert as always seeing the good in others. One he noticed a man oiling the wheels of his wagon while reciting his morning prayers. Rather than reprimand the man, the rabbi raised his eyes to Heaven and declared: "See God how wonderful are your children. Here is a man that even while oiling his wagon is singing your praises!" Often there are several possible perspectives on an event. Are there facts of which we may not be aware? Do we know that there are now mitigating circumstances that would shed light on the other persons behaviour?