Sunday, November 12, 2006

Keeping an open mind and heart (Avot 1:8)

יהודה בן טבאי ושמעון בן שטח קיבלו מהם. יהודה בן טבאי אומר, אל תעש עצמך כעורכי הדיינים. וכשיהיו בעלי הדין עומדין לפניך, יהיו בעיניך כרשעים; וכשנפטרים מלפניך, יהיו בעיניך כזכאים, שקיבלו עליהן את הדין.

Yehuda ben Tabai and Shimon ben Shetah received it [the Torah] from them. Yehuda ben Tabai says, do not make yourself like the lawyers. And when the litigants stand before you, let them be like the guilty in your eyes. And when they leave [the court] -- having accepted the judgment upon themselves -- let the litigants be like the innocent in your eyes.

Today's Mishnah makes more clear something that has been true of nearly every Mishnah we have seen so far -- their intended audience (the ones to which all the advice is directed) -- is/are judges of courts. That is, it is directed to other Rabbis (who,
as I have already pointed out, were judges in addition to being teachers).

But the basic lessons -- and wisdom -- of these Mishnahs apply whatever our profession may be. Yehudah ben Tabai is instructing us about how we should deal with a people bringing disputes before us. This is a situation we all commonly face. We could even understand the recent elections this way -- two sides (or candidates) came before us asking us to judge between them and choose one of their positions as the right one.

Thus, Yehuda ben Tabai instructs us that we should not act as lawyers. That is, we should not act as advocates for either side when we are judging between the two. In an election then, we are instructed to keep our minds open. To listen to both sides. To not enter in the campaign with our mind made up to advocate for either side.

Yehuda ben Tabai also instructs us to view the litigants as both being guilty. The commentators understand this as meaning that you should carefully examine -- and evaluate -- their positions as if they were guilty. So, in an election, you should carefully examine the positions of the candidates.

Finally, Yehuda ben Tabai instructs us that we should view the litigants as innocent when they leave the court. The commentators understand this as meaning we should view the litigants -- whether the winner or the loser -- as righteous and proper individuals when the leave the court. So, in an election, we are instructed to not view the losing party as "bums" or anything like that. We should treat them with the respect that any person is due.

Whether your side won or lost in the recent elections, I hope you will find respect from the other side. And that you should be able to give the same to them.

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