‘Judge everyone favorably,” teaches the Mishna. In my years in the rabbinate I have found this is a principle we observe very strictly when it comes to ourselves. We always put our own actions in a favorable light: “I was only trying to help!” or “I only said it out of concern” or “I’m not mean — you are too sensitive!” But when it comes to others, we are too willing, even eager, to assume unflattering motivations.
Israeli President Shimon Peres once offered his view on the greatest Jewish contribution to the world: “Dissatisfaction.”
Talk shows and preachers peddle calm and peace of mind. But Peres reminds us of the message of our prophets: Isaiah could not feel satisfied while living amidst anguish and war. Jeremiah could not ignore the widow, the orphan, the corruption around him.
In “The Arabian Nights,” Scheherazade keeps herself alive by weaving a narrative spell: her story is so thrilling that the Sultan keeps her around to hear the next night’s continuation.
Staying alive through stories: this is part of the secret of the Jewish people. We tell our tales, day by day, night after night. On Tisha b’Av we recount the story of destruction and loss. On Passover, of liberation and triumph. On Rosh HaShanah, of creation, on Shabbat of rest. Scholars, sages, fiddlers, fools — each magic link in the chain pulls us to the next.
Essayist Charles Lamb wrote that the world is divided between those who borrow and those who lend. Essayist Max Beerbohm divides the world into hosts and guests. Essayist Robert Benchley explains that there really are two types of people: those who insist upon dividing the world into two types, and those who do not.
After Rabbi Milton Steinberg recovered following his heart attack he walked out into the bright midday sun. He thought, “How precious — how careless.” Life is so precious and we are so careless with it. How can we pay so little heed when we know that everything cherished must end? Perhaps we fear that if we care too much, the losses of life will be unbearable.