Judging favorably during the coronavirus

While it’s hard to imagine that it has already been more than two months since the coronavirus stay-at-home policies began, the underlying, widely persistent familial friction pulsating in many of our homes is a reminder of the monthslong toll this virus has taken on our emotional lives. It’s not easy to be with anyone 24/7, and family members are no exception to this rule. Cabin fever is effectively pitting husbands and wives against each other, and brothers and sisters are finding new and inventive ways of driving each other up walls on a daily basis.
An April 9 article in USA Today (“Family feud: Clashing over coronavirus is the new source of household tension, fighting”) accurately sums up home-life during the pandemic:
“‘All families have underlying issues; in times like these, they’re exacerbated or easily triggered, thus launching potentially toxic interactions,’ says family therapist Helen Park of Manhattan’s Ackerman Institute for the Family, a mental health clinic. ‘It’s just so much more pronounced now because the climate for everybody is such an acute, pervasive level of anxiety,’ Park says. ‘That kicks up the sympathetic nervous system; the fight-or-flight fear responses are very much always on. That’s where you get problematic cycles of interactions, which are so difficult to interrupt if you’re in a heightened state.’”
In the midst of this crisis, many nuggets of advice have circulated the Internet in the hopes of easing the tensions at home. They span the gamut of wisdom culled from the self-help world: Dedicate specific time for self-care, engage in open dialogue about areas of personal frustration and anxiety, divvy up a comprehensive chore list amongst everyone in the household, start a garden, meditate and on and on the list continues.
These prescriptions are all well and good, but I can’t help but thinking that more than anything else that lies within our powers, we need to offer some much needed slack to all of those around us. This means overlooking irksome habits, picking our battles carefully and more than anything judging favorably.
In particular, the sages saw the trait of judging favorably as the key to maintaining positive, healthy, long-lasting relationships and as such concluded one of the most prominent Jewish teachings about intimate relationships with this ethical dictum.
As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:6) states: “Make a teacher for yourself, acquire a friend for yourself, and judge everyone favorably.” The lesson embedded is clear. Man needs both teachers and friends to help successfully guide him through life. And yet, if he fails to judge these integral relations in a meritorious light, it is but a matter of time before these relationships erode and with them the benefits inherent in them.
So judge favorably we must!
But how to change something as ingrained and long-rooted as one’s outlook?
The famed Hasidic Rebbe of Gur, the Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905), sees the keys to character transformation in the peculiar, literal translation of the Mishnah — “Judge the entire person (‘kol ha’adam’) favorably.”
It is only when we examine an unseemly act in isolation that we respond with our full measure of disgust, displeasure or anger. However, when we take personal life circumstances into consideration, seeing the individual in their entirety, we are often able to mitigate the harshness of our response, to understand where they might be coming from, and to even arrive at a meritorious judgement.
Perhaps this is why we are often so quick to excuse our own failings and misconduct. We, better than anyone else, know our backstory. We know what led us to this lousy mood we’re in, and why we were late for the appointment. “If only everyone else understood my predicament, they wouldn’t be so upset,” we tell ourselves.
If we have successfully learned to judge ourselves favorably, we must believe that it is equally within our capacity to extend that courtesy to others! Now, more than ever, we must lift these life-changing words off the pages and into our homes.
Judging favorably is about the only thing I want going viral!
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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