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The Other Side of the Story
Giving people the benefit of the
doubt stories and strategies
by Yehudis Samet
assisted by Aviva Rappaport
A Note to the Reader:
Much of the material presented here is based on the
works of our great sage Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839-
1933), the foremost rabbinical leader of his generation.
Although he authored numerous works, he is known by the
title of his first publication, the Sefer Chofetz Chaim, a ma-
jor treatise on the laws of lashon. hara, in which he
gathered together Talmudic and Rabbinic sources on the
subject of proper speech. Presented in a clear, concise
manner, it has become the classic and definitive guide for
all generations. In that work, together with its complemen-
tary second half, Sefer Shemiras HaLashon, we find the
laws as well as the deep understanding of the value of
judging favorably. It is the Chofetz Chaim who inspires and
"The pathways of zechus will never be closed
to one who wants to judge favorably."
Author's Preface (part of)
This book's origin goes back almost thirty years, when my
husband and I and our eldest daughter, then four months old,
came to settle in Kiryat Mattersdorf, a newly-founded neighbor-
hood in Northern Jerusalem. It was in those early years that
several women formed a group to study the classic work on the
laws of lashon hara by the Chofetz Chaim. At each session a
different participant was responsible for presenting the materi-
al. This preparation gave each one of us the opportunity to
familiarize herself with the Chofetz Chaim's work.
When we completed the sefer for the first time, we made a
gathering. HaGaon HaRav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlita,
morah d'asrah of Mattersdorf and Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Ore,
spoke about judging others favorably, particularly stressing the
happiness we can bring into our lives when we look at people
positively. His words inspired us to continue.
Yom Kippur 5733 / 1973
Can we ever forget that Yom Kippur morning when the sirens
sounded, and we all rushed to shelters, suddenly finding our-
selves in the middle of yet another miraculous and tragic war?
As we emerged from our building's shelter hours later, we
knew there was much to be thankful for, many to mourn for, and
plenty to think about. While we were busy with the physical,
technical side of our safety, some of the neighbors urged that we
not forget about protecting ourselves spiritually. The suggestion
was made to start a study group in our building. Gathering to-
gether and learning the laws of lashon hara would benefit all of
us and preserve the sense of unity we had felt so strongly that
day. Since I had some experience from the original group, I was
asked to prepare. And that is how our class in Shemiras
HaLashon (guarding the tongue) began.
At first we were a small group, but as interest in the subject
increased, we grew in size. Our basic texts were Sefer Chofetz
Chaim, on the laws of proper speech, and Sefer Shemiras
Haloshon, teachings of our Sages on topics relating to proper
speech. We also studied new books published to explain and
augment these original sources.
My husband worked with me on the weekly presentation,
explaining difficult material and clarifying complicated issues
with great Torah authorities, the talmidei chachamim of
Yerushalayim. Under his direction, the ideas and concepts
that formed the basis of the classes and this book were
Always on the alert for practical suggestions, our group's
interest was kindled when we read these words of the Chofetz
Chaim: "The more a person habituates himself in the midah of
judging favorably the less he'll be caught in the snare of lashon hora.
Speech begins with thoughts. Proper thoughts produce proper
speach; negative thoughts are the soil in which lashon hara
grows. Go to the root of the problem, encourages the Chofetz
Chaim, and learn to judge favorably.
We decided to move in that direction, paying attention to daily-
incidents where we had misjudged an innocent person.
People began submitting personal stories. The stories got us
thinking. And as they poured in, they kept us thinking, and re-
ng, annoyances, suspicions, and resentments even
that had been held on to for years. Week after week we
new stories prefaced with statements like, "Wait till you
this one," or, "You'll never believe this . . ." It was a powerful
lesson when we suspected someone and felt sure in our
conclusions, and then discovered a surprise ending that they
done nothing wrong at all.
Reactions were fast in coming.
:I came in to class with a closed fist, and slowly it unclenched."
I wasn't aware of the mitzvah to judge favorably, but now
that it has become such a meaningful part of my life, I wonder
how I functioned without it."
The baby was drifting off to sleep. It was 3:30 in the after-
noon. Maybe I would be able to close my eyes and rest a
little. The house was filled with children, friends, and friends
of friends, happy sounds. Everything was okay. A good time
The doorbell rang. I decided to answer it. I'll never go back
to sleep anyway.
I pulled on the door handle, more asleep than awake. My
face brightened. "Oh, Lea, come on in. How nice to see you."
Lea Newman is one of my good friends, very respected by
all. "I didn't come to visit, although I'd like to," she began.
''Something important came up and I feel you should know."
There was a sinking feeling in my stomach. What would be
coming? Was it about one of my children? My mind flipped
through the smiling faces and drew a blank. It was one of
those peaceful seasons where everyone was happy with
teachers, friends, sisters and brothers, and parents.
She seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I didn't.
She leaned forward. "Didn't he tell you?"
Oh, so it was my son. That narrowed it down. What could he
have done and why did I have to miss a nap to hear about it?
"You know my daughter Chavie is running the summer
day camp. That's where it happened. She felt she had to con-
sult with me before she spoke with you. We decided it would
be better if I were the one to come and tell you." My friend's
voice was uncharacteristically solemn.
My son was eight and this day camp was for five-year-olds.
It must have been pretty bad if Chavie had to tell her mother.
Chavie is eighteen and knows how to handle children. What
could he have done?
"What's the problem?" I asked her in as casual a tone as
possible. Her answer exceeded anything that I would have
"Yesterday, Chavie was inside giving out pails and shovels
for the sand pile when she heard a child crying outside. She
looked out of the window and saw your son holding a piece of
rubber hose and hitting little Shimmy. He was lying on his
back and crying and holding up his hands to protect himself."
I was in shock. Such a picture! Rubber hoses, bullies, help-
less victims, defenseless children it was like a splash of ice
water in my face.
I heard the baby crying. But everything seemed far away
as I looked into my mind and saw my son's face, from birth
until now. I lined up his misdeeds and pulled out from all the
files his worst behavior. This horrible picture simply did not
"Did Chavie actually see him hitting Shimmy?" I asked.
"Are you sure it was a rubber hose?"
"Yes. She went right out and took it away."
"Didn't Chavie ask them what it was all about?"
"Yes. Shimmy said the big boys wouldn't let him play with
"What was my son doing there anyway?" I asked.
"That's what Chavie wanted to know!" her mother ex-
Remember, I told myself, don't make knots. Don't let her tie
up the package and label it forever. There is always at least
one other side to a story, if not more.
"Lea, I appreciate your coming over to tell me this yourself.
I'll discuss it with my son when he comes home."
"I don't envy the punishment he'll get," she said as she
When my son came home, I gave him something to eat and
calmly ask him if he had had a good day. "Yes," he said, "Did
anything unusual happen today?" "Nope." "Anything you'd
like to tell me about?" "No, nothing special." I sighed.
"Today I heard about something that happened and I'd like
to hear what you have to say." When I finished repeating
what I had heard, this is the story he told me:
"Me and my friends finished learning and went out to play
ball. We were playing in the grass next to the fence, outside
the camp. A little kid from the camp came out and threw sand
in our faces. We yelled at him to go away and he ran inside.
He came out after a few minutes with a stick and hit us. We
chased him and the teacher saw us and shouted at us not to
come in the yard again.
"We were playing again when he came after us. This time
he had a piece of rubber hose. We all ran after him but I'm
faster. I chased him into the camp playground, near the slide,
next to the fence and he turned around and raised the hose to
hit me. ! grabbed the hose in the air and he stepped back-
wards to pull it away and he tripped over something and fell
on his back.
"Just then the teacher came out and shouted at me. After
that we all went to play somewhere else."
Still the detective, I asked him a few more questions. "Why
did you chase him? If he was bothering you so much, why
didn't you go look for the teacher?"
"We didn't want to get him in trouble."
"So why did you hit him?"
"I never hit him! How could I hit him? He's just a little kid."
Later in the day, we went over to Lea's house. She and her
daughter Chavie were both home. My son repeated his story
in full. Mrs. Newman turned to her daughter and said: "Didn't
you say that you saw him hitting Shimmy?"
"Well," Chavie replied hesitantly, "I'm not sure. ! thought I
did... but I guess I never actually saw him hit Shimmy. I just
assumed from the way he was standing and holding the rub-
ber hose that he had hit him."
She added up two plus two a raised hose in a hand and a
child lying on his back on the ground. It seemed like easy addi-
tion. Nonetheless, she came up with the wrong answer.
As an architect I deal with all types of professional people
involved in the building trade.
Recently, one of my renovations was completed and, as
usual, a clean-up was in order. The clients asked me to rec-
ommend someone, which I did. In fact, I highly recommended
a certain company since they had done outstanding work
for me in the past and had shown themselves to be complete-
The cleaners were supposed to finish that afternoon. I went
over to the apartment to give it my final approval. I was un-
prepared for what I saw.
As I entered the building, the downstairs neighbor met
me in the lobby. "Have you been up yet? Did you hear what
Slightly alarmed, I listened as the neighbor filled me in on
Apparently the cleaner and his helper had arrived at 7:00
a.m. that morning. Because the owner lived too far away to
open up for them, he had left the keys with his brother. The
brother was there when the workers came, opened the door
for them and then left. The owner, my client, arrived at 9:00
a.m. He looked around the apartment only to discover that
the fancy imported bathroom fittings were missing. A thor-
ough search did not uncover the missing faucets. Only two
people had been there: the cleaner and his helper. My client
marched over to them and accused them to their face. At that,
the cleaner blew up.
Now they were all there in the apartment as I walked in the
Both sides gave me their stories. The professional cleaner
begged me to side with him. We had worked together on many
occasions and he knew he had proven himself to be honest.
The owner of the apartment, however, had no doubt in his
mind who was guilty. He took me aside and asked me if I
agreed with his assessment of the situation. I said, "One thing
I was never good at was solving 'whodunits.' But I do know
that when you think you've discovered the culprit, and
you're sure beyond the shadow of a doubt, it's usually some-
I finished checking the apartment and we all left.
Later that evening, ! received an agitated phone call from
the owner's wife. She explained that her brother-in-law had
come in to see the finished apartment after I left. After hearing
what happened, he then went over to a cupboard in an ad-
joining room and returned with the "stolen" bathroom
The brother explained that because of the house being left
open all day he was afraid something might be stolen. He
knew how much the fittings meant to his brother and sister-
in-law, so he hid them where no one would find them.
The wife asked me, "What should we do? We're so em-
barrassed. Certainly we will pay the cleaners something extra
for all the trouble we put them through but whatever we
do, it won't wipe out the embarrassment we caused them.
"But we were so sure," she defended herself. "All fingers
pointed to the guilty party. Right?"
We hired a painter, who came highly recommended, to
W give our deck a new coat of paint. He came a few days
later and all in all I was quite impressed with his promptness
and efficiency. I had to leave for work, so I left him on his own.
By the time I got home he had finished and gone. Looks nice,
I thought But as I got closer to the house, I couldn 't believe my
eyes. The whole front window was speckled with paint, as
were our brand-new storm door and dining room windows.
Maybe he'll still be back to clean it, but better not take
any chances. I quickly called him and left a message on his
machine. The next day when I got home from work I found
that he had come by and had left a bill in my mail box but
he hadn't touched the windows. If he left a bill, it must mean
he thinks he's finished! Maybe his other customers accept this
- but I certainly won't!!
I called again, and again I got the machine. This time my
tone was tense and my message more to the point. I certainly
didn't intend to let him get away with it.
When I got home from work the next day there was a mes-
sage on my answering machine from the painter. He was most
apologetic and assured me that he knew he wasn't finished.
He had been swamped with work the past few days and was
planning to come back and finish up as soon as he could.
Sure enough, he was back the next evening after a full
day's work and did a beautiful job.
When our assumptions seem to make so much sense, it is a
challenge to question their credibility. Is it not reasonable to as-
sume that if a worker leaves a bill he's finished? The painter, on
the other hand, assumed it was obvious that he would not leave
a porch in such condition. The bill didn't preclude a return vis-
it, especially since it was an outdoor job and the owner didn't
even have to be home.
Our friends Shoshanna and Eliezer Hermann were mak-
ing a wedding and my husband and I flew out to be
with them for the festivities. My husband made sure to take
along his brand new camera for the occasion, happy that he
had bought it in time to take a lot of pictures to remember
We had a wonderful time. We were their house guests for
two days and it was particularly enjoyable being in the mid-
dle of all the preparations and excitement.
It was joyful and quite lively. Shoshanna's children sure
were a peppy crew! It seemed there wasn't a thing they
weren't interested in exploring. They were into everything.
A week later I was looking at the newly developed pictures,
when I stopped short. Three views of the ceiling and the
That's what happens when you're lax with children! I
thought to myself. If their mother would discipline them prop-
erly such a thing would never have happened. Respect for
other people's property is a must in education.
I was still incensed when my husband entered the room.
"Look at this," I said, waving the pictures.
He came over to see the photos I was holding up. "Guess I
missed a few," he said with a little smile. "I'm still not com-
fortable with this camera. When I was trying to advance the
film, it took three shots of the ceiling."
From stories such as those above we see that if we are not
trained in judging favorably, instead of seeing the good and the
redeeming in seemingly dubious behavior, which is what we
should be doing, we may attribute negative behavior to a per-
son who didn't do anything at all, faulting others by the process
of elimination or through incorrect assumptions.
When we add up facts and reach a negative conclusion about
people, we must be willing to work it through again. Before we
bang down the gavel, we must challenge the evidence.
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