The Benefit of the DoubtNovember 18, 2013 - 5:00 am
“This is the account of Jacob’s family line. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.”—Genesis 37:2
The Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev, which means “and he lived,” is from Genesis 37:1—40:23, and the Haftorah is from Amos 2:6—3:8.
True story: Alan sat in his car full of anger and disappointment. He had just dropped off his date after cutting the evening short. The person who had fixed him up had promised Alan the “girl of his dreams,” but as soon as his date got in the car, a terrible smell accompanied her. It followed them into the restaurant and lingered in the air even now. What kind of girl doesn’t even shower before a date?
Later, when Alan got home, his mother started shouting about something that he was tracking into the house. Alan looked down at his shoe and found the real source of the smell that had followed him all night!
As this story illustrates, we are often quick to judge others, and more often than not, we judge them wrongly. Sadly, when we jump to conclusions, we often sever connections and ruin relationships – for no good reason at all. What a tragedy.
According to the Sages, this is exactly what happened with Joseph and his brothers in this week’s reading. The verses tell us that Joseph was tending the flocks with his brothers and then “brought their father a bad report about them.” The Sages explain that Joseph saw his brothers sever a limb from an animal that was moving and then prepare it for eating. Now, eating a limb from a live animal was not only cruel, but was strictly prohibited by God. This is what Joseph went to report to his father.
However, Joseph was wrong. The brothers were not eating from an animal that was still alive. It had been slaughtered appropriately, but sometimes, after an animal is dead, the body still quivers. This is what Joseph saw and what he wrongly interpreted.
Tragically, Joseph’s misinterpretation led to his own misfortune. When he failed to give his brothers the benefit of the doubt, they resented him and the relationship was permanently damaged. Eventually, the brothers would sell Joseph, believing that he was a troublemaker . . . and the rest is history.
We can learn an important lesson from Joseph and his brothers. Unlike Joseph, we can remember to give those we meet the benefit of the doubt. Someone cut you off in traffic? Maybe they have an emergency to which they are heading. Someone gave you an unfriendly, angry look? Maybe they had a fight with their spouse that morning. When giving others the benefit of the doubt, we may interpret the situation just as incorrectly as when we assume the worst. But so what? If we are right, we have saved a relationship. If we are wrong, we have given someone a second chance.
When we assume the worst, we all suffer; but when we assume the best, we are all better off for it.