The Sages teach us in Pirkei Avot, “Yehoshua ben Perachya says: Establish a rabbi for yourself, acquire a friend for yourself, and judge everyone favorably.”
This means that when we see someone doing something unclear and it is quite possible to interpret this action as a sinful act, however, on the other hand, it could also be interpreted in a positive light by stretch of imagination, one should tilt the scale to the favorable side and assume the person did not do something wrong.
On this point, Hagaon Harav Shalom Schwadron zt”l, the famed Maggid of Jerusalem, recounted a powerful story:
During the first World War, Jerusalem was plagued with terrible poverty. People were literally starving to death, and everyone did whatever they could to get their hands on a slice of bread. An egg was considered a small treasure in those days.
A Jew from Jerusalem began saving up little by little for years until he was able to obtain a Napoleon, a gold coin of immense value in those days. With this coin, he could sustain himself and his family for an extended period of time. He placed this coin on top of a high closet in his home, thinking to himself that when tough times hit, I will use the coin feed myself and my family.
One day, one of his children climbed to the top of the closet and saw a shiny gold coin. He quickly snatched the coin and hurried to the nearest store to use it to buy some cookies.
On his way, another starving Jew from Jerusalem sees this child walking in the street with a Napoleon coin. He said to himself, as his stomach churned in hunger, “Look! There are still such wealthy Jews left in Jerusalem who send their children in the street with gold coins!” An evil thought then passed through his head and he told the child, “Little boy, what are you holding?” The child showed him the coin. The man told him, “Let me give you a much more expensive coin and trade you for this one!” He then gave the child a copper coin. The child then took the copper coin to the store and bought a few cookies.
A few hours later, the child’s father realized that the Napoleon was no longer in its place and his heart dropped! The family began turning over the house but to no avail. Suddenly, the young child piped up and exclaimed, “I took the coin to the grocery store and used it to buy a few cookies because I was hungry.” (What happened on the way to the store escaped the memory of the young child.)
Immediately, the father took his son to the store and angrily told the owner, “My son was here earlier with a Napoleon coin, and you are not ashamed to take advantage of his naiveté?!” You stole the gold coin in return for a few cookies!” The owner retorted, “Yes, your son was here before and did purchase some cookies, but he was not holding a gold coin, rather, it was a measly copper coin!”
The father then summoned the store owner to a Bet Din session before one of the luminaries of Jerusalem. After hearing out the claimants, the sage ruled that the owner need not pay the father anything. However, because the owner partially agreed to some of the details of the story, he would be liable to take an oath to prove his position, that the child only gave him a copper coin.
The store owner, who was a G-d-fearing and pious man, claimed that he had never in his life sworn about anything and he did not intend to do so now either. He preferred to repay the entire value of the Napoleon than to take an oath! And so, it happened.
This incident got out among the residents of Jerusalem and people started saying, “Look at this wicked store owner! He took advantage of an innocent child and store a Napoleon coin!” In this way, this man’s stellar reputation was destroyed, and people began to look at him as a crook and stopped patronizing his store. The situation became so grave that he went bankrupt, closed down his store, and could no longer earn a living.
After the war ended, the financial situation of the residents of Jerusalem began to slowly improve. Even the man who tricked the child years before began to build back his life and he wished to return what he stole. He approached the child’s father and said, “Listen, during the war, my family and I were literally starving, and I saw your son walking in the street with a Napoleon like an affluent child. I thought to myself that if your financial situation was so well off, you would certainly agree to lend me the coin for a little while. So, I swapped a copper coin for your son’s Napoleon. Now I am returning the Napoleon to you.”
The father heard this and immediately took the Napoleon to the store owner, repaid him, and begged his forgiveness.
One of the sages of Jerusalem heard this story and exclaimed: Let us ponder this for a moment. When they judge this case in Heaven, who will they incriminate? The father of the child is certainly not guilty, for he relied on his son’s account of the story. The store owner certainly acted beyond the letter of the law. The person who stole the coin was starving and the verse states, “A thief is not held in contempt for stealing to appease his hunger.” Who is left? All those gossipmongers who rushed to judge the store owner unfavorably and spoke evil of him and destroyed his reputation. They caused him irreparable physical and emotional damage during such tough times. These people will bear the judgment for their actions!