Shirley Sherrod is a black woman who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This past week, a right-wing activist posted on his blog a video of Sherrod speaking about an episode which transpired in 1986, while she was employed at a private advocacy firm, wherein she refused to help a white farmer simply because he was "one of them." The reaction to the video was quick in coming. Sherrod was castigated from all sides – from the director of the USDA to the president of the NAACP – and was promptly asked to tender her resignation. She did.
Not 24 hours later, the entire video of Sherrod's speech was released, and a bunch of apologetic politicians and journalists with egg running down their faces came to realize how important context is.For the unedited version of the video revealed that Sherrod did help the white farmer—going, in fact, to great extents to do so. Until this day she remains friends with that farmer and his family. Actually, the point she was trying to make by repeating the episode was the importance of racial harmony...
Context is so important in every area of life. Here are three areas that come to my mind:
Belaboring this point is superfluous, because I don't think there's even one of us who can claim not to have repeatedly fallen into this trap. We'll hear or see something, or someone fails to come through for us in a certain area, and we immediately draw conclusions, pronounce judgment, and already map a course of action to redress the perceived wrong—only to later learn of the larger context, the extenuating circumstances, the exonerating details that emerge just a few hours later.
If we were never to reach conclusions – and implement accordingly – based on what we see and hear, we'd obviously be paralyzed into inaction. Imagine, for example, a business whose boss never takes disciplinary action because he's always giving his employees the benefit of the doubt.
But we must always bear in mind the following two rules of thumb: a) Never judge anyone before taking the time to investigate and evaluate all the relevant information. b) Even if all the information we have available indicates culpability, which requires us to act accordingly, it is never our business to mentally judge our fellow. In the back of our mind we must always be aware that there just might be a broader picture to which we are not privy.
Perspective vis-à-vis tragedy:
The following is an excerpt from a letter penned by the Rebbe in 1952 in response to someone who was struggling to reconcile G‑d's infinite kindness with the occurrence of tragic events:
...Suppose one encounters an individual for a brief period of time, finding him asleep, or engaged in some arduous toil. Now if the observer would want to conclude from what he sees during that brief period of time as to the nature of the individual he had observed, he would then conclude that the individual has an unproductive existence—in the first instance; or leads a life of torture—in the second. Obviously, both conclusions are erroneous, inasmuch as what he saw was only a fraction of the individual's life, and the state of sleep was only a period of rest and preparation for activity, and – in the second instance – the toil was a means to remuneration or other satisfaction which by far outweighs the effort involved. The truth is that any shortsighted observation, covering only a fraction of time or of the subject, is bound to be erroneous, and what may appear as negative will assume quite a different appearance if the full truth of the before and after were known.
Similarly in the case of any human observation of a world event. The subject of such an observation is thus taken out of its frame of eternity, of a chain of events that occurred before and will occur afterwards. Obviously we cannot expect to judge about the nature of such an event with any degree of accuracy. A volcanic eruption or earthquake and the like are but one link in a long chain of events that began with the creation of the world and will continue to the end of times, and we have no way of interpreting a single event by isolating it from the rest.
(Click here for the full [con]text of the letter.)
Self-Image / Introspection:
We are rapidly approaching Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar year, a month traditionally devoted to soul-searching and grueling introspection.
Throughout the year, it is easy to live in the moment: impressive accomplishments are followed by euphoric self-back-patting; failures are routinely followed by depressing lows. Usually, neither of these sentiments are justified by the larger context.
Which is why we have an entire month to closely examine the larger picture. The clear picture that emerges from this context allows us to accurately assess ourselves and develop an appropriate plan of action to ensure that the new year is more meaningful than the one that has passed.