Learn to Judge the Whole Person

Yael Eckstein  |  November 23, 2021

Color painting of Joseph being sold by his brothers.

“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” — Genesis 37:19-20

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Vayeshev, which means “and he lived,” from Genesis 37:1—40:23.

There’s an ancient Jewish teaching that I want to share with you. It comes from Ethics of the Fathers, a book of ethical teachings and words of wisdom from the rabbis who lived around 2,000 years ago, near the end of the Second Temple period. The rabbis teach that we must always “judge every person to the side of merit” (Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 1). On the surface, that may seem like a simple teaching, almost like saying we should be nice to people and not assume the worst, but there is a deeper point that I’d like to share.

In this statement by the rabbis, the Hebrew for “every person” is kol ha’adam. This is usually translated as “every person.” But Kol means “all,” and ha’adam means “the person.” So I believe that the rabbis are really teaching us that we must learn to judge “the whole person” favorably. Let me explain.

When we see someone doing something that is questionable, our first thought may be to judge them based on what we see. But we don’t see “the whole person.” We don’t see the background of the situation. We don’t know what they are feeling inside that may have led to this behavior.

Learn to Judge the Whole Person Favorably

We see only what the person did, and we judge them based on that alone. The rabbis are teaching us to realize that we don’t see the entirety of the situation. We must learn to judge the whole person favorably because we don’t always see the full picture of who they really are.

One way we might wrongly judge others is when we label people based on a negative behavior. When we define someone based on their worst moments, we willfully blind ourselves to the fullness of who they are.

In this week’s Torah portion, when Joseph’s brothers saw him coming toward them, they decided to kill him. They resented Joseph because of his dreams, which portended that one day they would all bow before Joseph. Rather than refer to him as Joseph, they called him “that dreamer,” defining him by the one behavior that led them to despise him.

This labeling intentionally ignored everything else about Joseph as a way of justifying their plans to do him harm. They did not call him Joseph. They did not call him their brother. They judged him by one behavior, rather than by the fullness of his personality.

We can increase love and tolerance for others, even in their worst moments, if we learn to judge the whole person and look beyond what we see in their worst moments.

Your Turn:

Think of some troubled people that you know. Try to think of the “whole person.” Consider some of their other traits and struggles. Keep them in your prayers today.