How easily do we write people off? How often do we say that such and such a person is a ‘bad person’? And yet the Talmud is giving us a simple but profound lesson. If God who exacts justice and knows all of our actions can forgive when the weight of evidence is so heavily weighed against a person, how much more should we judge people in a meritorious way.
One example of this principle of ‘judging people favourably’ is the case of the wife of Rebbi Akiva? Was there no more suitable match for her? Did she need to choose an Am Ha’Aretz? The answer we all know is that her criteria for her husband was based purely on his potential and she did not a find a single eligible man with qualities suited for Kinyan HaTorah more than Rebbi Akiva.
The gemara in Shabbat (127b) talks about the mitzva of Dan L’Kaf Zechut (judging people favourably). It tells the story of a worker who worked far away from his family. After three years, on Erev Yom Kippur he told his wealthy boss that he wants to return home and he’d like to be paid for his services. His boss told him that he had no money to pay him. The worker knew very well that his employer possesed incredible wealth but nevertheless he went home empty handed and sad, but without complaints.
After Yom Tov the employer showed up at the worker’s doorstep with three donkey-loads of all sorts of fine things to compensate for the wages that he had owed. He asked the employee, when I said I had no money what did you think? “I thought you bought merchandise with your money”. And when I said I don’t have any animals to give you, what did you think? “That they were rented to others” answered the employee. And so on and so forth, with each form of possible payment that the employer said no to, the employee responded that he didn’t suspect trickery, only a valid excuse. “You were correct in every assumption, but today I have finally straightened out my financial troubles. just as you judged me L’Kaf Zchut may Hashem judge you L’Kaf Zechut” said the employer.
This employee was none other than Rebbi Akiva, the sheperd who knew very little torah. His wife knew of Rabbi Akiva’s middot and understood that he was poised to become the greatest Torah scholar ever. These middot were those of a person whom Moshe Rabbeinu would ask Hashem, why do you not give the torah through him? These were the middot that were perfectly suited to kinyan haTorah.