I recently met with a student of mine for coffee to discuss a guy she has been dating. Before we began, she pulled out her notebook and pen, ready to take notes. She was organized, well put together, and highly intelligent. It was refreshing to see a young lady putting so much work into her relationship when most of the world just assumes casual dating will lead to the perfect marriage on its own with no work required. This young woman was taking this vital decision seriously, and wanted to make sure she would marry the right one.
When I asked her how her most recent date went, she opened up her notebook and proceeded to read off the issues she had with her date.
“You know, Sarah, I don’t know if I’m being crazy here, but he ran a light that was turning yellow. I wonder if this indicates disrespect for rules?”
I continued to listen as she went on to describe another issue she had. “We went for a walk and he tripped. I think it was from nerves. Do you think he has anxiety?”
I gently suggested that it’s possible he just lost his balance, and that perhaps running the yellow light was the responsible choice given the flow of traffic. I explained to her that she was viewing her date as if he were under a microscope. And in this case, I was acting as the “scientist,” interpreting what the microscope was showing us.
Many of us feel we have a good sense of people. We think to ourselves, If I scrutinize every aspect of this date, I’ll get right down to the core of this guy (or girl). If I keep one eye (or both eyes) open, then I’ll really see their true colors, and be able to determine if this person is right for me. Unfortunately, our dates can usually notice when they are being treated as a specimen under a microscope, and although we mean no harm – and judge only in an effort to see the true colors of the person – it ends up backfiring. This lovely young lady was probably experiencing this with the young man she was dating.
In my years of teaching, I have found that this type of experience happens so often that it would be nearly impossible for me to track down every student who has shared this experience with me. I understand why these “daters” tend to focus deeply on superficial matters. After hearing one too many dating horror stories, it is natural to be terrified that people will not be who we think they are. Many people ask me the question, “How can I see through the other person’s mask to see the person underneath?”
Well, think about what makes us clam up. Suppose you walk into a room and everyone is staring at you with a look of disapproval. Suddenly you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin. Was it something I said? Is it my clothing? What is wrong with me? Your mind starts running a mile a minute with self-doubting thoughts. In such a scenario, anyone would become hypersensitive and put up a protective front. If your date feels they are under a microscope, they will create an even stronger barrier, leaving us without any real clarity as to who that person really is.
The Torah offers another solution. “Dan et kol ha’adam lekaf zechut,” (Pirkei Avot 1:6).
People generally think that this sentence means, “Judge every person favorably.” What a beautiful idea! We win because we increase our own positive frame of mind, and the other person wins because no one likes to feel judged. When we judge others favorably, we don’t give off a “judgmental vibe,” and in turn, the other person feels more open and willing to be real with us.
However, the phrase means more than that. The sentence writes dan kol ha‘adam, meaning “judge the whole person with favor.”
We cannot focus too closely on the details, taking one statement that the other person makes and determine that they are not right for us. He or she is a whole, dynamic person. They have feelings, a history, and a future. We must be willing to take time to really get to know the entire person before deciding his or her worth. If you judge favorably, you will actually see the whole person, who will then feel comfortable enough to reveal their true self. At that point we can begin to see enough of the person to truly determine whether they are right for us.
We think that when we do Hashem’s mitzvot, we are doing an act of chessed. But really, the chessed is also for us, because it affects who we choose as a marriage partner, a friend, or anyone else entering our lives. We gain the most from this small act of kindness.
It is important to remember that judging favorably does not equal excusing inappropriate behavior. We cannot rationalize genuinely bad behavior, or lie to ourselves about what we see in another. We must endeavor to be reasonable, clear-headed, and honest in how we see them.
Perfecting this carefully-balanced approach requires practice, and by nature, requires a certain amount of judgment. After all, we are judging to see if this person is right for us. But there is a difference between judging the relationship, and judging the person. Doing so leaves the other person still feeling whole and worthy, despite the relationship not working out. We owe it to ourselves, and to our date, to do so carefully.
Finding a life partner is one of the most complex, challenging, and exhilarating experiences we will go through in this world, and we cannot do it alone. Just as G-d gives us tools to help us uncover the mask of the person we are dating, He has also gifted us with the tool of prayer. We can always turn toward Him to ask for clarity in making the proper decision about our date.
My blessing and hope for every person navigating the challenging dating world, is that Hashem should give you the clarity to see what you need to see. He should open your eyes, help you to shed your own mask, and ultimately allow you to see the true essence of the other person. If we take the time to shed our own masks, and use these valuable tools to help the other person be the most genuine version of him or herself while dating, then we are well on our way to setting ourselves up for a long and successful marriage.