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From a Distance

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But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. — Genesis 37:18

The Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev, which means “and he lived,” is from Genesis 37:1—40:23, and the Haftorah is from Amos 2:6—3:8.

I once heard a story about a battleship at sea that had sailed into severe weather. The captain received a report that there was a light up ahead. He called out, “Is it steady or moving astern?” The lookout replied that it was steady, which meant that the ship was on a collision course. The captain ordered the signalman, “Signal that ship: ‘We are on a collision course; advise you change course 20 degrees.’” Back came a signal, “Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees.” The captain retorted, “Signal: ‘I’m a battleship. You change course 20 degrees.’” The reply flashed back, “I’m a lighthouse.”

Sometimes, our great misjudgment of others leads to great mistakes of our own.

In this week’s reading, Joseph was misjudged by his brothers. Scripture tells us, “they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” Joseph’s brothers had decided that he was the bad seed – like Ishmael had been to Isaac and Esau had been to Jacob. And we can understand why they thought this. After all, Joseph went around sharing his dreams about ruling over his family. He brought a bad report about his brothers to their father. In his brothers’ eyes, Joseph seemed way out of line, so they held court, judged Joseph as evil, and sentenced him to death.

The problem was that the brothers “saw him in the distance.” They didn’t really know him or understand who he really was. This misjudgment led the brothers to make a huge mistake. They sold their righteous brother to a band of Ishmaelites.

In Leviticus 19:15, we are commanded to “judge your neighbor fairly.” The Jewish sages took this one step further and said, “Do not judge your friend until you have reached his place.” If we are to judge others fairly, we can only judge another person when we have enough information about him or her in order to pass a fair judgment. However, we can only really have enough information if we have “reached his place,” meaning we are standing in his or her shoes. Until we fully understand what it’s like to be that particular individual, with his or her set of circumstances and experiences, we can never pass a fair judgment over that person.

In reality, the sages are telling us that we can never pass judgment on anyone at all, since we can never fully understand what it is like to be any other person.

Joseph’s brothers made a terrible mistake when they passed judgment on him – let’s not do the same. Instead, let’s remember that there is more to every person than what we may see. Don’t judge from a distance. Instead, come close to others with empathy, kindness, and compassion.

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