“And it was, when Lavan heard the news of Yaakov his sister’s son, he ran toward him, embraced him, kissed him, and took him to his house” (Beresheet 29:13)
Yaakov Avinu’s escape from his angry brother Esav culminated with his arrival at the well where he met Rochel for the first time. The spiritual bond between them was instantaneous and they realized they would be partners in building the nation of Israel. When Lavan, Rochel’s conniving father, heard that Yaakov had arrived, he ran to meet and greet his cousin. His greeting and embraces, however, were far from pure and innocent. Rashi explains the meeting as follows.
“He ran toward him” — He was under the impression that he was laden with money, for the slave of the house (Eliezer) had come there with 10 laden camels.
“And he embraced him” — When he saw that Yaakov had nothing with him, Lavan said, “Perhaps he brought gold coins and they are on his body.”
“And he kissed him” — He said, “Perhaps he brought pearls and they are in his mouth.”
It is difficult to understand why Rashi explains so extensively that all of the friendly actions of Lavan were in order to search for Yaakov’s fortune. On the surface, Yaakov was greeted so warmly with hugs and kisses, so why not judge Lavan favorably? Why explain that his intentions were expressions of pure greed?
Sometimes we act in ways that are topsy turvy. We permit the forbidden and forbid the permitted. A student of the Baal Shem Tov once said, “There is a sin which I love and a mitzvah that I despise. When one says ‘it is a sin to help that Jew’ — That’s a sin that I love. And when people say ‘it is a mitzvah to bury that guy!’ — that’s a mitzvah I despise!” Therefore, Rashi comes to teach us an important principle. True, one must judge others favorably but not when the other is truly wicked.
There are situations when we are confronted by people who do not keep Torah and mitzvos, yet we jump to judge their actions favorably. On the other hand, when we see or hear something negative about “one of our own” we forget to look for the good and the wrath of the trait of “din” (strict justice) is invoked. It’s incumbent upon us to learn from the words of Rashi that the rule of “judge favorably” is proper, but not in all circumstances.
Your family, your friends, the people with whom you learn and work deserve your understanding and lenient judgement. The wicked and evil people who share this planet with us, however, do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. When the Tanna says, “Judge every adam to the side of favor,” the first requirement is that the suspect be an “adam.” If he passes that test, then one should judge doubtful behavior to the side of favor.