By Yanki Tauber
“Do not judge your fellow,” the great sage Hillel is quoted in the 2nd chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, “until you have reached his place.”
One thought that comes to mind when contemplating this statement is that a person can never truly be in his fellow’s place. If that be the case, then what Hillel is really saying is, “don’t judge your fellow, ever.”
But there’s also the story about the famous Chassidic brothers, Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha. The pair would travel from town to town and from village to village in a quest to bring the hearts of their fellow Jews closer to their Father in Heaven. Dressed as ordinary wayfarers or beggars, they would knock on the door of a Jewish home and ask to be put up for the night. In the middle of the night, their host would be wakened by sounds of weeping coming from the brothers’ room. Putting an ear to the keyhole, he would overhear them confessing the day’s misdeeds and failings to each other: a bit of dishonesty here, a word of malice there. “Oh, dear brother ‘Melech!” Reb Zusha would weep, “I scarcely opened a Jewish book today… What is a Jew’s life without a word of Torah? A barren wasteland!” “Oh Zusha!” the other brother would unburden his heart. “Do you think I prayed today? I barely mumbled the words! Is that how a Jew speaks to his dear Father in Heaven…?” With a stab in his heart, the eavesdropping host would recall his own petty dishonesties and badmouthing, his own neglect of Torah and soulless prayers, and resolve to be a better Jew tomorrow.
So perhaps this is what Hillel wants to tell us: You can’t judge your fellow, but you can judge the person in whose place you are — namely yourself. So if you want to help your fellow improve himself, criticize yourself in a way that gets him thinking, too.
Then there’s the story told of Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch. Once, while receiving people in yechidut (private audience), Rabbi DovBer suddenly stopped the yechidut, locked his door, and refused to see anyone for many hours. Chassidim outside his door heard their Rebbe weeping and praying. Following this incident, the Rebbe was so weakened that he was confined to his bed for several days. Later, one of the elder Chassidim dared to ask the Rebbe what had occurred. Rabbi DovBer explained: “When a person seeks my assistance in curing his spiritual ills, I must first find the same failing — be it in the most subtle of forms — within my own self. For it is not possible for me to help him unless I myself have already experienced the same problem and undergone the same process of self-refinement. On that day, someone came to me with a problem. I was horrified to hear to what depths he had fallen, G-d forbid. Try as I might, I could not find within myself anything even remotely resembling what he told me. But Divine Providence had sent this man to me, so I knew that somewhere, somehow, there was something in me that could relate to his situation. The thought shook me to the very core of my soul and moved me to repent and return to G-d from the depths of my heart.”
In other words, you can’t judge yourself, either. If you have a problem, then you’re the problem — you need someone outside of your problem to help you solve it. But if that person is outside of your problem, then he can’t truly know it, so he can’t solve it, either. What you need is a Rebbe — someone who is infinitely beyond your problem, yet knows that if you have the problem, he has it too.
One more story, this one told of Rabbi DovBer’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe:
Rabbi Shmuel was receiving people in yechidut. Scarcely an hour had passed, and already the Rebbe was exhausted; he called a break and asked for a fresh change of clothes.
The Rebbe’s gabbai (secretary) emerged from the room carrying the clothes which the Rebbe had removed. They were drenched in sweat. “Master of the Universe!” muttered the gabbai. “Why does he exert himself so? Every hour he needs a new change of clothes. Why does the Rebbe sweat so much?”
The Rebbe’s door opened, and Rabbi Shmuel stood in the doorway. “Go home,” he said to his secretary. “I will continue to pay your salary, but I no longer desire your services. You have not the slightest understanding of my work.
“Don’t you understand? In the past hour twenty people came to see me. To relate to each one’s dilemma, I must divest myself of my own personality and circumstances and clothe myself in theirs. But since they came to consult not with themselves but with me, I must re-clothe my self in my own persona in order to advise them.
“Did you ever try changing your clothes forty times an hour?” concluded the Rebbe. “If you did that, you, too would be exhausted and bathed in sweat.”