Hello from Sunny Florida!
I hope you had a wonderful Pesach celebration and that you’re now counting the days (Sefirat HaOmer) between Pesach and Shavuot, the holiday where we celebrate the entire point of the Exodus which was, and is, the receiving of the Torah. After the intense physical effort that goes into preparing for Pesach, I always find the quiet days of self-reflection and counting that mark the 7-week period between Pesach and Shavuot to be a wonderful counterpoint. Our goal for these 7 weeks is to focus on becoming even more elevated people, worthy of receiving the Divine gift of even greater connection and wisdom. One of our traditions is to focus on improving and enhancing our relationships with other people. To that end, we have a custom to study (and integrate) the lessons from Pirkei Avot — often translated as Ethics or Sayings of our Ancestors. Although many of the sayings appear to be no more than pithy aphorisms, in truth each one is packed with the deepest of truths. You can find a wide variety of versions and commentaries on Pirkei Avot depending on what approach resonates with you.
I want to share something that I learned this morning from Pirkei Avot Chapter 1, Mishna 8 (each saying is one mishna). “…when serving as a judge, do not act as a lawyer; when the litigants stand before you, consider them both as guilty; but when they are dismissed from you, consider them both as innocent, provided they have accepted judgment.” There is much written about this brief statement, but what fascinated me today was the commentary about after litigation — where assumedly one party was found innocent and the other guilty — if the guilty party accepts the judgment and whatever consequences are given–the guilty person is now considered innocent! How could that be? Didn’t he or she probably lie when they answered the judges questions? According to Rav Yonah, once the verdict has been accepted, even the guilty litigant is to be regarded as having pleaded and sworn truthfully according to his own interpretation of the facts. Do we appreciate and understand what this is saying? Don’t each of us, in our own way, “swear truthfully according to our own interpretation of the facts?” When we realize that we are, and everyone around us is, constantly interpreting facts based on our own personal biases, experiences, mood, family framework, personalities, etc., we can be more generous in relating to other people and the positions and perspectives they have. While there is a legal decision made about which party is legally correct or incorrect that must be accepted and acted upon, the (guilty) individual’s personal integrity remains intact. They were truthfully speaking according to their own interpretation of the facts.
Most of us aren’t called upon to act as an actual judge, but we certainly engage with other people on a regular basis and pass judgment on their integrity. Rav Yonah’s guidance is certainly relevant in our time. Perhaps we can find a way to say that the person we are so quick to criticize is “swearing truthfully according to her interpretation of the facts.” Cultivating that perspective in our interpersonal relationships will do much to calm difficult and tense situations where differences threaten to tear us apart, and will enable us to maintain cohesive families, organizations, and communities.
May all your days of counting count!