Thursday, October 08, 2015

absolute vs relative judgment

Before Yom Kippur our community had the privilege of hearing words of chizuk from R' Eli Mansour.  The thesis of his talk (I found a similar shiur he gave posted here if you want to hear it) was that there are two types of judgment on the yom ha'din: 1) absolute, or objective judgment; 2) relative, or what he calls comparative judgment.  Objective judgment means G-d pulls out the scorecard and weighs our merits vs. our demerits and gives us a grade.  I don't know about you, but to me, that's a scary thought.  Can any of us really be confident that we have more good deeds than bad on the books?  Fortunately, there is another judgment -- comparative judgment.  Instead of looking at how we are doing on an absolute scale, G-d looks at how we are doing relative to the society and environment we find ourselves in.  The student who gets a 65 on a test on an absolute scale is barely passing, but if everyone else in the class got a 40, he looks like a genius.  We live in such a sick, perverted society that when G-d looks at us, warts and all, we sparkle like diamonds compared with the rest of the world.  Because of that, hopefully we merited a chasima tovah.

I was reminded of the shiur when I saw this Ohr haChaim on the murder of Hevel.  Kayin offered the first korban, and taken by itself, that's certainly a positive.  But when you compare his paltry korban with the offering of his brother Hevel, then not only is the import of his gift minimized and lessened, but it almost seems to be an affront to G-d.  On Yom Kippur, relative judgment works in our favor.  When it came to Kayin's korban, relative judgment -- the inescapable comparison to Hevel -- worked against him, at least in his mind.  Kayin was consumed with jealousy.  As a result, he killed his brother Hevel.  Kayin had a simple cheshbon: better to commit one murder and suffer the consequences than to live with the constant risk of being judged as faulty and not-up-to snuff compared with others.

The Netziv takes note of the double-language, "Vayichar l'Kayin" and "vayipol panav."  When G-d speaks to Kayin, again, we have the double-language of "Lamah charah lach" and "lamah naflu panecha."  The Netziv suggests that Kayin was doubly troubled.  He was troubled by his own failure to offer an acceptable korban, but more than that, he was troubled by the fact that Hevel had offered a better korban and had outshone him.  In other words, Kayin felt disappointment in his own accomplishment when judged on an absolute scale, but he also felt the pain of falling short relative to his brother.  I would say that failure perhaps hurt even more.  

I'm afraid I'm going to part ways with the Netziv's reading of the next pesukim (see Ramban as well) and would like to suggest a different punch line to the story.  In response to Kayin's anger and depression, Hashem tells him, "Ha'lo im tei'tiv se'eis v'im lo tei'tiv la'pesach chatas roveitz..." (4:5).  Do good and you can overcome the yetzer ha'ra; do bad, and it will catch up with you.  Didn't Kayin know that?  Don't we all know that?  Peshita, mai kah mashma lan?  Maybe what Hashem was telling Kayin is that if *you* do good, then *you* will overcome the yetzer and be successful.  Forget about Hevel and what he's doing -- focus on yourself, on the *you*, on what you need to improve on.  It's not because of Hevel alone that your korban was rejected -- it's because you could and should have done better.  This is the mirror image of Rabbi Mansour's message.  Hashem is generous and will use comparative judgment when it's in our favor, and kinas sofrim tarbeh chochma as a motivation tool, but when a person is consumed with thinking about keeping up with the Joneses, even in spiritual matters, it can have debilitating effects and do more harm than good.  Hashem was telling Kayin to focus only on the absolute scale, on what he felt he could and should accomplish relative to his own abilities, and forget about the rest.  Score a 95 on the test and it doesn't matter what the other person got -- your good grade stands on it's own merits. 

It's interesting that earlier in the week I was planning on posting something entirely different on Braishis and then I sat down by the computer and this just popped out onto the screen.  Bl"n I have to get to the other topic...


  1. You weren't unwilling to accept the concept to one's detriment back in 2013.
    See comments at

    1. My position has "evolved," as Hitlary likes to say.

      In truth though it hasn't, and I don't know how to really square what is going on here with that idea of comparative judgment.