Pirkei Avot
About JIYF
Choose yourself a mentor;
Acquire yourself a friend;
And make it your habit to judge every person favorably.
—Yehoshua ben Perachia

Commentary [1:6]
Choose yourself a mentor... My teacher Joseph Agassi, from Jerusalem, read a brilliant essay in the field he was studying in University. He sought out the author an said to him: “There is a saying in the Talmud, ‘Choose a teacher, acquire a friend’. I choose you as my teacher.” The teacher said, “But this college doesn’t grant a degree in this subject.” He said, “Nonetheless, I have come to learn from you.” The college eventually established a degree, and he earned it. Though he no longer studied Talmud, this mishnah was in his heart. So, too, the need for companions with whom to study.

Make it your habit to judge everyone favorably. An intriguing principle, very difficult to live up to. The Hebrew is literally “Be judging every person to the pan of merit”—the pan of merit being one of the pans in the scales of justice. Does this mean that we should really judge everyone favorably? Maimonides couldn’t go so far. He interpreted it thus: we should give anyone with a good reputation the benefit of the doubt, even if his action looks bad, but we should be suspicious of a person with a bad reputation, even if his action seems good.

This seemed to me, too, a noble but impractical principle, until I attended the ninetieth birthday of a woman who actually had lived all her life in accord with it—Evelyn Racki. Friends and family got up to tell stories, and the theme came up again and again: people were worried over her being too trusting and naive, but somehow her vision of the good and the valuable in each person radiated a beneficent influence, causing people actually to be their best. All those in the large room who had experienced her responding to the best in themselves, responded in turn by treasuring her company and adoring her. The ‘be judging’ does indicate that we can make exceptions for the sake of prudence. But Yehoshua ben Perachia did really mean it: our outlook and habit should be to judge everyone favorably.