Shabbat Miketz: Benefit of the Doubt

One of the Jewish ethics presented to us most powerfully by our parashat hashavua, and our week as a community, is this: khaf z’khut, “benefit of the doubt.” It is an important Talmudic teaching, and understood as a vital mitzvah of relationships, that we must always give someone the benefit of the doubt – even going out of our way to do so. Here is one well-known story which illuminates the principle:
It became known to the Rabbinical Sages that one Abba the Healer was considered to be an especially good and ethical person.
Two of the students were curious, and they went to Abba, pretending to be ill and in need of his help.
Abba the Healer received them and gave them comfortable reed mats to lie on while they waited their turn to see him.
When he was occupied, they took the mats and left.
A day later they returned to him, and he welcomed them.
“But do you recognize us?”
“Yes, of course I recognize my honored guests. You were here yesterday.”
“But did you know that we took your reed mats?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What did you think?”
“I said to myself, certainly an unexpected opportunity for a ransom of prisoners became available for the Rabbis, and they required immeidate funds, but they were too embarrassed to say so to me or to ask for money. Instead, they took the rugs.”
The students then offered the mats back to Abba the Healer. “Here, now please take them back.”
But Abba the Healer refused them, saying “from the moment I realized that they were missing, I put them out of my mind and consigned them for tzedakah.
As far as I am concerned, they are already designated for that purpose, and I cannot take them back. They are no longer mine.” (Taanit 22a)

In the world in which we live, many would consider Abba the Healer to be hopelessly naive. But our tradition insists that a person cannot be a good Jew unless s/he is committed to giving others the benefit of the doubt every single time there is any doubt at all. In this week’s parashah, the willingness to trust – or the lack thereof – shapes lives, relationships, futures.

In a world so full of disappointments on every level, it may be tempting to give in to the whisper of the yetzer hara’ as it urges us to give up on each other, and to become cynical and suspicious. But that way does not lie wholeness of the self, nor happiness in one’s relationships. To continue to see the good in others may be, on some days, a real act of defiance against the more dystopic aspects of our American culture – and in so doing, to affirm the wisdom of our far more ancient Jewish ethical culture. Judge each other l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, and may we all know the grace of having that benefit returned to us.
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