Learning to Look for Good in Others

Learning to Look for Good in Others

I have a friend – or, rather, I had a friend – who was very accomplished, bright and articulate, the energy behind many worthwhile community projects. But there was a problem.

Rabbi Herbert Cohen

In spite of his many achievements, he was disliked by many people because he was always critical of those around him who did not meet his expectations, who in his view did not meet his high professional standards. Moreover, he regularly made negative comments about other people and made critical comments to me as well.

Although I felt he clearly was alienating everyone, I did not feel he was ready to hear my reproof, and so I kept my silence. When my personal schedule changed, making it impossible for me to see him on a regular basis, I felt relieved to be out of his orbit. Finally, I would have a day free of criticism and negativity.

My friend was a success in many ways, but no one liked him. His constant criticism isolated him, even from those who admired his talents and his community accomplishments.

I thought of him as I watched “J. Edgar,” a biopic of John Edgar Hoover, the long-time director of the FBI, a man who did a great deal of good for the country by introducing scientific methodology into the crime-solving process but whose legacy was tarnished by his cold and harsh persona. His indelicacies distanced even those who admired his professional achievements.

J. Edgar never realized that people do not like to be continually reminded of their imperfections or where they fall short. He may have spoken his mind, but his words were like arrows that left others bleeding.

The film begins with Edgar telling his story to a writer in an attempt to set the historical record straight about his life and deeds. Told in a series of flashbacks, the movie is fascinating in its analysis of historical events.

Such episodes include the capture of celebrated criminal John Dillinger and the painstaking scientific methodology that enabled the FBI to track down Bruno Hauptmann, the kidnapper and murderer of the Lindbergh baby. The film’s attention to period detail and its overall verisimilitude make you feel as if you are truly witnessing history unfold onscreen.

The solid accomplishments of the Bureau emerge from the narrative, but so does Edgar’s ubiquitous, critical tone towards almost everyone. Even when FBI agent Melvin Purvis captures John Dillinger, the nation’s most wanted criminal, Edgar finds fault with him and wants him reassigned to a desk job.

In the end, Edgar has no friends; only one or two people remain loyal to him, and it is because of their long-standing association with him, not because they love him. The titular figure is alone at the close of his life because he fails to see the good in people around him.

The Ethics of the Fathers tells us that every person is presumed to be of good character unless there is hard evidence to the contrary. That is the bedrock of a civilized society that depends on trust and good will among its citizens.

Moreover, the Talmud tells us that G-d is pleased with man when men behave pleasantly towards one another. Kindness lubricates society; it makes people want to share with others and help others less fortunate. It places the emphasis on the good of the community, not on self-promotion, even when it benefits the community.

Edgar looked for the dirt, not the diamonds, in others. Sadly, he gets lost in his own notoriety, and it diminishes his reputation.

His story reminds us to focus on “catching people doing something right” and sharing one’s achievements with all those who contributed to the successful completion of an enterprise. In this way, we can leave an enduring and positive legacy.


Rabbi Cohen, former principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, now resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Visit koshermovies.com for more of his Torah-themed film reviews.

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