Before judging others, judge ourselves



Yesterday, I was on the verge of correcting someone about something. I thought it would be too disruptive though, and embarrassing to them as well, so I held my tongue for a few minutes. Then, I checked the book from which I was going to prove myself correct and the other person wrong. And guess what I found? 

No, the other person was indeed wrong. But I’d also forgotten something significant, so I was wrong, too. I pulled the person aside a little later and explained what had happened and we both laughed about it. 

It reminded me, however, that it’s so easy to judge others without taking a careful look at yourself. And yet, to judge justly, to correct someone or to give feedback requires not only knowing that we’re right, but being sure that we’re not simultaneously guilty of the same thing that we are correcting.  Or, at the very least, we need to acknowledge to whomever we’re speaking our own imperfections in that area before correcting them. 

This all reminded me of a story in which Rabbi Yannai had a tree that overhung the public street. It just so happened that another man also had a tree overhanging a public street, and the passersby there objected. The man was brought before Rabbi Yannai, who was to judge the dispute. Rabbi Yannai said to the man, “Go away, and come back tomorrow.” 

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That night, Rabbi Yannai sent someone to cut his own tree down. The next day, the man came back and Rabbi Yannai told him to cut down his tree. The man protested, “But don’t you, Rabbi Yannai, also have a tree that overhangs a public street?” 

“Go and see,” Rabbi  Yannai replied. “If mine is cut down, cut yours down, and if mine is not cut down, you need not cut yours down.” 

The story, which comes from the Talmud (Bava Batra 60a-b), concludes with the maxim, “Trim yourself, then trim others.” 

From an extraneous word in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shofetim, our sages derive a similar lesson. 

“Judges and magistrates you shall appoint for yourselves,” the Torah says (Deuteronomy 16:18).  Why does it need to say “for yourselves?” This implies that first the leaders need to judge themselves before they can begin judging others. And needless to say, this applies especially but not only to leaders.  

We are all in situations daily in which we “judge” others — for being a little late, for using the wrong word, for going a little too fast in a parking lot.

But am I always on time? Is my word choice always perfect?  Have I ever driven slightly faster than I should in a parking lot?  This is not to say don’t give feedback. Rather, do so from a place of humility. 

As we prepare for the High Holiday season, let us spend a little more time looking at ourselves, rather than judging others.

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.