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Whose Genes Will You Blame?

07/06/2018 12:21:00 PM


Why are we so suspicious of others?

Often, when we see someone do something good, we suspect that their intentions are flawed. Do they really mean it? Who are they trying to impress? What are they trying to prove? What do they expect in return? What are they covering up? What is their real agenda?

Similarly, when someone does something which we feel is wrong, we immediately jump to conclusions about how negligent and careless and selfish they are.

Why do we feel so certain that we know what’s going on in another person’s mind and life?

Over the past 70 years, Cognitive Psychology has taught us that our attitudes towards others (and consequently our words and actions towards them) are formed not by what the other person said or did, but rather by our interpretation of what the other person said or did.

Thousands of years before this, the Torah instructed “You shall judge your fellow with righteousness” (Leviticus 19:15).

Nineteen hundred years ago, the Talmud records a teaching from Shmuel: “One who disqualifies another does so with their own flaw.”

The flaw in many of our judgements of others is that we view them and their behavior through the lens of our own lives. In other words, we make judgements of their lives based on our own opinions, personalities, standards and life’s experiences.

But every person is a whole world; and no two people look or think alike. Just because something feels right or justified in our own lives, doesn’t mean that the same equation applies to another person’s life.

How often are we guilty of using a double-standard in our judgments?! When we don’t respond to a text message until after a few days, we explain it away due to being preoccupied with more important matters, or that we get too many messages and it ‘just slipped us by’. But when we don’t get a response to our message from another person within three minutes, we concoct all sorts of negative narratives about them. When we stop our car in an illegal or inconvenient space, we justify it by saying that we were just running into the store for 90 seconds to pick something up. But when we see someone else’s car doing that, we immediately decide how inconsiderate they are.

This teaching about judging others favorably is gleaned from the very first verses in this week’s Torah portion Pinchas: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal.”

G-d was reacting to Pinchas’ zeal for having killed Zimri son of Saul, one of the chieftains of the tribe of Shimon, who immorally cohabited with a Midianite woman. Whilst many of the Jews claimed that Pinchas’ actions were too harsh and violent, G-d proclaimed that Pinchas did the right thing, soothed G-d’s anger, and restored peace in the community.

It is quite common for the Torah to refer to someone by using their name and their father’s name. But why did the Torah elaborate on Pinchas’ identity by referring to (not only his father Eleazar but also to) his grandfather Aaron?

The Midrash relates that many Jews were cruelly disparaging of Pinchas. They said, “Pinchas’ mother is the daughter of Jethro, and Jethro used to cruelly fatten calves for idolatrous sacrifices. No wonder Pinchas behaved so viciously – it’s in his genes!”

In His response, G-d deliberately referred to Pinchas as (not only the grandson of Jethro, but also) the grandson of Aaron. Of all the great people in Jewish history, it is Aaron who is called ‘the man of peace’ – the one who loved peace and pursued peace. In other words, G-d was affirming that Pinchas’ motivation wasn’t at all cruel, but rather inspired by peace and concern for G-d, the Torah and the Jewish people.

At the end of the day, we can always choose how we wish to interpret the behavior of another person. Whatever we choose will never be the objective truth either way, because we never really know the full story, nor can we peer into their mind and heart. When we choose to judge favorably, we do a favor to ourselves and to them. We cultivate positive and sympathetic energy; we generate peaceful relationships; and we may even influence the other to indeed become more altruistically motivated.

Shabbat Shalom!

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782