Judge every man to the side of merit
Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6
On the most elementary level, this means that if you discern a negative trait in your fellow or you see him commit a negative act, do not judge him guilty in your heart. “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place,” warns another of the Ethics’ sayings, and his place is one place where you will never be. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which his inborn nature, his background and/or the circumstances that hold sway over his life have influenced his character and behavior.
However, this only explains why you should not judge your fellow guilty. Yet our mishnah goes further than this, enjoining us to “judge every man to the side of merit.” This implies that we should see our fellow’s deficiencies in a positive light. But what positive element is implied by a person’s shortcomings and misdeeds?
An explanation may be found in another talmudic saying: “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination (for evil) is also greater”—a rule crucial to our understanding of a fundamental principle of Torah, that man possesses “free choice” regarding his actions.
Indeed, how can we consider a person’s choices to be free and uncoerced, when there is so much inequality in life? Can we compare the moral performance of an individual whose character was shaped by a loving family, a stable environment and a top-notch education with that of one who has experienced only rootlessness, violence and despair? Can we compare a person who has naturally and effortlessly been blessed with a superior mind and a compassionate heart to one who has not been so privileged? Are their choices equally “free”? Are they equally accountable for their actions?
The answer to the last two questions is “Yes.” Certainly, no two human beings are alike. Each has been given a life that is unique to him alone, with his own individual array of challenges and tests on the one hand, and potentials and opportunities on the other. Free choice means that the Creator, who has created each individual and the circumstances of his life, has also fortified him with whatever resources are required for him to face his every moral challenge.
“Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination for evil is also greater.” One who has been advantaged with superior talents and qualities must struggle against an inclination towards corruption and evil far more powerful than that which faces the more “average” individual. Conversely, one who has been subjected to a greater measure of setbacks and trials in his life, has been granted an equally greater measure of fortitude and achievement potential.
So if your fellow has committed a crime so despicable that you are incapable of even contemplating such a deed; if he is plagued by demons so horrendous that you can hardly envision such evil—know that he is undoubtedly in possession of a potential for good that far exceeds your own. Understand that while he has succumbed to forces far more powerful than anything which you will ever face, he is an invaluable human being, one whose inner resources, if cultivated, could translate into attainments unimaginable by one less inclined to evil.
In other words, look not to what he is but to what he can be. Dwell not on the way in which he has negatively expressed his potential, but on what this potential truly consists of.
A Single Exception
So judge every man to the side of merit—every man, that is, except yourself. For the attitude detailed above, while appropriate to adopt towards other human beings, would be nothing less than disastrous if applied to oneself.
“True, I have done nothing with my life,” the potential-looking individual will argue. “But look at what I am capable of! Look at the quality of my mind, the sensitivity of my feelings, the tremendous talents I possess. It’s all there within me, regardless of the fact that I have never bothered to realize any of it. This is the real me. The extent to which I actualize it is only of secondary importance.”
In our judgment of human life and achievement, we must adapt a double standard. Our assessment of a fellow human being must always look beyond the actual to the potential reality within. On the other hand, we must measure our own worth in terms of our real and concrete achievements, and view the potential in ourselves as merely the means to this end.
This is an excerpt from “Beyond the Letter of the Law” by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life Center.
 Talmud, Sukkah 52a