D’var Torah: Why Ben Stokes wasn’t out and what we can learn from it
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 30 August 2019
Immediately after England’s unlikely victory in the Headingley test last Sunday afternoon, the headline in The Australian newspaper read as follows:
‘Ben Stokes was out… his heroics should not have counted’
This was not only terribly bad Australian sportsmanship, but it was also not technically correct.
Australia had, indeed, appealed for an LBW with England still needing 2 runs to win, and later replays had suggested that it would have hit the stumps. But umpire Joel Wilson was entirely correct not to give it. The decision was certainly not obvious, and in the laws of cricket there is the principle that in cases of uncertainty after an appeal, if there is doubt, it is always not out.
That is – that the benefit of the doubt should always be given to the batsman.
The benefit of the doubt is not just there in the Laws of cricket – but also in the Laws of Judaism…
In our tradition it is known as Dan L’Chaf Zechut – an idea found in Pirkei Avot which literally means to judge others according to a scale of merit, or to not automatically assume the worst.
Where there is doubt, we are instructed – hard as it is – to err towards positivity, assuming the best of others. As the commentator Rashi puts it, ‘On everything that you hear about a person, say that they intended for good, until you know with certainty that it is not so. If you judge thus, they will judge you from heaven as meritorious.’
The idea of Dan l’chaf zechut also comes to be associated with Nachman of Breslov, the 18th/19th century founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement. He extends it not just to times of doubt, but to a principle about how we ought to be with each other: ‘Even someone who is completely wicked’, he wrote, ‘It is necessary to search and find in him some modicum of good; that in that little bit he is not wicked. By finding in him a modicum of good and judging him favourably, one elevates him to the scale of merit and can bring him to repent’.
And not only others but also ourselves – ‘We must judge ourselves favourably and find some remaining good point, in order to give ourselves the strength to avoid falling completely’.
As we enter the month of Elul – known variously as “the month of repentance,” “the month of mercy” “the month of forgiveness,” may we remember to give one another the benefit of the doubt. To hear each other, to approach each other with openness, to see the goodness in each other.
And also to be gentle with ourselves, to see the good in ourselves, so that we too might avoid falling completely.