Lift the Cloud of Confusion

piyyut recited on Yom Kippur night uses a passionate plea. We say “has kategor — quiet the prosecutor; kach sanegor mekomo — so that the defender may take his (the kategor’s) place.” Why did the composer of this piyyut emphasize that the defender “take the place” of the accuser and not just request that the accuser be silenced?

One’s behavior is the result of his attitudes. In all areas of life, there is a choice between the positive and the negative, the constructive and the destructive. Our predicament is not that we might intentionally choose wrongly, but that we will fail to correctly identify which choices are truly positive and constructive. The dilemma of life is confusion.

The primal cause for our inability to clearly differentiate between right and wrong is the sin of the Etz Hadaas, rooted in lashon hara. When Adam Harishon accepted the lashon hara of the nachash about Hashem, this created doubt in his mind, and clouded his ability to distinguish between right and wrong. It affected not only him but all his descendants. It is the cause of strife between people and war between nations. Lashon hara is the curse of human history.

Chazal determined that one is permitted to listen to lashon hara for justified reasons — l’to’eles. For instance, if one wishes to enter a partnership and needs to know if the person in question is trustworthy, he is permitted to seek information about him, negative though it might be. However, even then, he should not accept what he was told as the absolute truth, but rather as information that might be true. Applying the element of doubt as dictated by halachah is essentially an act of teshuvah for Adam Harishon’s having accepted lashon hara at face value. Had he at least doubted the lashon hara of the nachash and remained passive, he would not have come to transgress Hashem’s commandment not to eat from the Etz Hadaas. Therefore, correctly applying the trait of doubt when dealing with lashon hara is a correction — tikkun — for Adam Harishon’s failure.

This is the deeper reason for the Torah’s instruction to be dan l’chaf zechus, to judge others favorably. Much more than a means of avoiding machlokes and ill will, it uses the trait of doubt to correct the chet of Etz Hadaas.

In every act that a Jew performs, even those that are objectively evil, there is always a kernel of good from which it has grown. Take a situation where an individual wronged his fellow in business. At the bottom of this rightfully condemnable act lies the offender’s feeling of obligation to support his family. From there he decided to “cut corners” and act in a dishonest way — but his principal thought was a righteous one.

All of our actions, even those objectively identified as positive, contain a mixture of good and evil. Even in actions that are overwhelmingly negative, the good that is in them draws its power from the neshamah itself and, as such, contains a spark of Divinity. This being the case, the good, no matter how small, can never be ignored or marginalized. The good that lies at the bottom of the Jew’s misbehavior is every bit as real as, and even more powerful than, the act’s outward wickedness.

All of us are challenged daily by the imperative to judge our fellow Jews favorably. This obligation beckons even louder with the approach of Rosh Hashanah, as we ourselves hope that Hashem will turn away from our shortcomings, focus on our merits and grant us a year of life and blessings. However, how can an intelligent human being see his fellow commit a misdeed and dismiss it without feeling like a fool? The answer is one of focus. In every complex situation, society or the individual processes the relevant aspects of the issue at hand and determines which to register as the central facts and which are merely details. Teaching ourselves to have a positive view of other Jews, even when their actions are less than wholly positive, is not a process of fooling oneself. Rather, it is based on identifying the positive that lies within his actions and training the mind to focus on that aspect of goodness.

The severity of lashon hara is based on a fundamental flaw in the speaker’s approach to life. One who speaks lashon hara has decided to take a situation that he observed or heard about at “face value.” He assumes that “what you see is what you get” and resolves to focus purely on the outward negativity of the individual in question. The terrible consequence of this attitude is the inability to identify what is true. Hence he lives in a state of confusion.

The principle of teshuvah requires just the opposite approach. Teshuvah means to look at the world from a deeper and more spiritual perspective and realize the truism of Chazal’s term for this world, alma d’shikra — a world of falsehood. They termed it as such for, by definition, the physical world only tells us part of the story. It does not reveal the deeper truth of all existence, which is Hashem Himself. Our teshuvah gives us the opportunity to lift the cloud of confusion.

Our tefillah to “quiet the prosecutor so that the defender may take his (the accuser’s) place” is not a request to sweep our iniquities under the carpet, but to look at them from a deeper perspective. Hashem, who knows the true depth of human existence, knows that the sanegor must replace the kategor. This is our plea.