31 Jan 2018

Tuesday Morning Torah – January 30, 2018

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On Offering Criticism
One thing that I know as a Synagogue Rabbi is that in most synagogues, members aren’t afraid to be critical from time to time. According to our tradition, this is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the criticism is constructive, thoughtful and compassionate. Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion, parshat Yitro, we read of an incident where Moses’s father-in-law is not afraid to criticize Moses’s leadership style:
Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.  But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he  had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the  people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about from morning  until evening? Exodus 18:13-14
Offering some advice to his son-in-law, who he felt was micromanaging the Israelites-Yitro was trying to get Moses to see the benefits of delegation as a leadership style.  He was warning Moses of the dangers that come with taking on too many tasks at once.
The book of Leviticus tells us specifically that rebuke can be a positive thing as long as it is given in a certain context.
You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, but you shall not bear sin because of him Leviticus 19:17
Our Etz Hayim Humash expands on this by reminding us that there is a way to be critical and there is a way not to be critical.
The Sages forbid carrying reproach to the point of embarrassing someone, thus incurring guilt because of that exchange, something that is forbidden by the Torah (Sifra). The obligation to reprove is limited to cases in which one has reason to believe the reproof will bring about a change in behavior. It should always be a loving rebuke, never an occasion to belittle another for errant behavior. Etz Hayim Humash, 696
In other words, offering criticism may be a mitzvah, but only when the person offering it has reason to think that the criticism will make a difference, and only if the criticism is done out of love instead of anger or insecurity.
I invite you to consider all of this the next time that you find yourself wanting to be critical of someone. Ask yourself- is the criticism both deserved and useful? And if it is both, ask yourself if you can offer it in such a way that will be both positive and productive.  In his wonderful work, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives us a few helpful tools to offer healthy and constructive criticism. He reminds us that we should deliver the rebuke:
  • lovingly and gently (for example, when criticizing a spouse or child, remember to use terms of endearment)
  • patiently (when reproved, none of us is able to acknowledge all his flaws and transform himself immediately, so don’t expect the person to whom you’re speaking to do so)
  • Privately, so as not to embarrass the other person (see Maimonides, “Laws of Character Development” 6:7) Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, 387
May all of us be up to this sacred challenge, the next time that we find ourselves compelled to offer a loving rebuke to someone in our lives.  
Have a great week!
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