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Out and About (and the Benefit of the Doubt)


They call it m’yam l’yam which literally means from “sea to sea;” and when I agreed to do it, I was surely suffering from a bout of temporary insanity. Israel’s really narrow, I told myself. How cool would it be to hike across [read: tell people I hiked across] an entire country?!

Despite the fact that I normally don’t walk further than the space between the computer and the fridge, I willingly agreed to go on this 30 mile hike (from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee) knowing that I’d be carrying a heavy pack by day and sleeping on nothing more than a sleeping bag by night. It was my year studying in Israel, and I wanted to fill it with lasting memories.

Oh, I got lasting memories, all right, but they weren’t ones of self-discovery and fortitude. No, my memories consist of whining, aching, and quitting. (I have memories of the other hikers as well.) 

Once the adrenaline wore off – in other words, after the first half hour – my hiking compadres and I quickly divided into two groups: quitters and perserverers. (You can guess which side I was on.) The perserverers tried making us would-be quitters feel guilty for wanting to throw in the towel so quickly. The heated debate continued for most of the day until one of my quitter friends fake-twisted her ankle (brilliant!) and we quitters persevered.

I did learn one important lesson on that trip, though it had nothing to do with anything related to the hike. It happened quite accidentally at the house of the family who hosted us the night before the big day. One of my hiking mates suggested we stay with these friends of hers (who lived close to the Mediterranean) in order to get an early start in the morning.

All of us on the hike were religious, and there had been no discussion about the observance level of our hosts, but I just assumed they were religious too since no one told me otherwise.  Apparently they were not, but no matter what they said or did, I found a way of explaining all their non-religious-seeming behaviors.

First, the husband picked us up at the bus stop, and I saw he wasn’t wearing a yarmulke. (There are some Modern Orthodox men who don’t wear yarmulkes to work for professional reasons, I told myself. He must be coming home from work.) Then we got to the house, and the wife offered us cake which everyone else politely declined, but I happily ate since I had no reason to believe it wasn’t kosher. (These  girls must all be on a diet, I thought. More cake for me!) Then the couple mentioned that they had spoken to their daughter on the phone on Saturday. (Saturday night, I assumed, after Shabbat was over, of course.)

No matter what they said or did, I found a way of fitting it all into a religious context, because I “knew” that they were religious and therefore everything had to have an explanation. It was only when my friend pulled me aside later that evening and asked me why I had eaten cake baked in a non-kosher kitchen that I realized what had happened.

Besides learning that it’s important to actually confirm the kosher-level of a host before eating his food, I discovered something far more profound that night: there can always be an explanation to unexplained behavior if you’re willing to look for one which is the key ingredient in being dan l’kaf z’chut (giving someone the benefit of the doubt).

When someone does something which makes us feel that we’ve been wronged, the knee jerk reaction is to assume that the action came from malice or ill will, but Judaism teaches us that we must judge all people (unless we know for sure that they are out to do us harm) with the benefit of the doubt.

Although finding an explanation to seemingly negative behavior might be challenging, if you “know” in your heart that the person in question is a good, well-meaning individual just as I “knew” that the family who hosted us was religiously observant, then instead of feeling resentful for whatever happened you can look for ways to defend it.

Which (I hope) is exactly what the perserverers did after we quitters ruined their hike.




  1. Good lesson. It is hard to implement, especially with regard to those whom we do not like personally – but this is all the more reason to be reminded of the lesson’s importance.

  2. I also try to live by this way of thinking. People have called me naive, because of it. I prefer to think of it as automatically believing in the positive in people, until otherwise proven wrong. When you think about it, it’s the same principle that’s behind our legal system-the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

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Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.