Kavod/Respect - Lesson 9 - Criticism

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” This couldn't be further from the truth. Words are far more damaging than physical pain. While compliments enable a person to feel happy with himself, insults do the exact oppo



We are here to improve our relationships with others

in order to transform the Jewish people in these urgent times.


Last week’s stretch of the week was:  Before you respond to something a child does, think about their perspective and what your goal is in speaking to them.

Please allow ONE person to share her experience with this exercise for ONE minute.



Lesson #9





Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Words are far more damaging than physical pain.  While compliments enable a person to feel happy with himself, insults do the exact opposite.  They cut through a person’s heart and soul, causing untold damage to his emotional well-being.

Most of us will not physically attack another person out of anger.  We wouldn’t hit someone else simply because he upset us.  When it comes to words, though, it’s a different story altogether.  We can be pretty quick to lash into the person.  People don’t stop to contemplate the great pain they are inflicting on someone else with their sharp words.  If only they could see the blood dripping from their victim’s body, they would think twice before they opened their mouths.

A great person once remarked that we have to be more careful with what comes out of our mouths than what goes into our mouths.  We must take great caution not to hurt another person’s feelings, to avoid causing even an indirect slight to his honor.  Chazal, our Sages, (Bava Metzia 58b) tell us that hurting someone with words is worse than cheating him financially.

It really hurts to be criticized.  Therefore, we must think twice before we offer any criticism.  If we are unsure whether we ought to say something, we are safer keeping quiet.  Constructive criticism has a place, but one must know when and how to deliver it.  We especially have to be wary of criticism when it touches upon something the other person takes much pride in.  Such criticism attacks the core of the person’s self-respect, causing untold pain and damage.  His entire world is, in essence, pulled out from under his feet.

For example, when someone comes over to you to share an insight in Torah, he is probably not seeking your opinion as much as he is looking for your respect.  A quick dismissal of his thoughts is robbing him of this opportunity.  If you have a question for him, wait a little.  First, try to sincerely appreciate his thought, and only afterwards gently ask your question.

In a similar vein, we must be vigilant to avoid embarrassing someone else.  Chazal (Bava Metzia 58b) tell us that embarrassing a friend in public is tantamount to killing him.  The Maharal says that when one gives respect to his friend, he is giving him life.  We can imply from this that stripping someone of his honor is stripping him of life.  Embarrassment stems from loss of respect, so by embarrassing someone we have truly taken away his life.

(Reproduced from Run After the Right Kavod by Rabbi Moshe Don Kestenbaum, with permission of the author and copyright holders, Israel Bookshop Publications).


Story(based on a true story)

I sat comfortably at my parents’ Shabbos (Sabbath) table, my husband and children and my parents and brothers completing the picture.  Earlier in the week, my oldest brother had come in to visit after completing his thesis on educational psychology, and occupied a proud place to my father’s left.

We have always been a family full of discussions and debates, and our Shabbos Torah discussions were no different.  We all offered ideas that were praised, thoroughly dissected and refined.  Immediately afterward, my father turned to his left, and, beaming with pride, dramatically said, “Now, I’d like to hear from Josh, our future graduate.  Tell us about your work.” 

Josh ducked his head a bit at the praise and began to give us a general summary of his work and results regarding the positives of tracking classes by learning level within middle school, and the plan he was helping to set up in the school where he worked.  I found it fascinating, and listened carefully, enjoying both the subject and the light of excitement in Josh’s eyes as he spoke.

“So interesting and well-planned,” I said when Josh had finished, “but here’s the thing I don’t get.  How does this address the kids who aren’t obviously studious but would get pulled up by those around them when they’re in the same class?  Don’t they get sacrificed in this system?”

Josh paused, and then gave me a carefully thought out answer.  I was about to ask further questions when I looked closer and saw that the light had gone out of his eyes.  My mother asked a follow up question that bolstered the ideas he had been working on, but the excitement level had clearly gone down.

As I helped clear the main course, I realized what I had done.  I had asked a valid question, one that Josh had probably had to answer both in the development of his plans and while defending his thesis.  But Josh had not told us about his work to be questioned on it; he had done so to make his parents proud, and to show us what he had been working so hard on for all these years.

But instead of letting that moment happen, I had caused the first response to his explanation to be critical.  The question might have worked had I appreciated his ideas at the table and then asked it respectfully later that night or the next day.  I also could have left it for another weekend.  After all, it’s not like I needed the answer right now.

Yes, I had said it was interesting and well-planned, but I had committed the error of using the word “but”.  As my parenting class teacher always said, “It’s not a compliment if you use the word ‘but’.  You don’t say, ‘Good job cleaning up, sweetie, but you missed that corner’.  You say ‘Good job cleaning the room’, and talk about the corner later, so they can feel good about what they’ve done.”

I thought about how to fix my error, and decided to start with my parents.  Over tea that evening, I spent a few minutes genuinely praising my brother’s dedication and his research.  Then, when Josh joined us, I complimented a specific aspect he had told us about and asked him a few questions about how he came to understand and use it.  He seemed happy that I had listened closely enough to pick out one specific topic and cared enough to know more about it, and the light came back as he explained.  I realized that had I raised my table question this way, later on and more respectfully, he might have felt similarly flattered and less criticized.

That evening, I realized how important pride and reputation are to how we live our lives.  If someone questions my work skills in public, those listening may have less faith in me and it may hurt my livelihood.  I realized that this was also true for parenting skills.  I wouldn’t want to be criticized in front of my parents or in-laws, who might start to lose trust in my ability to parent their grandchildren correctly.  Alternatively, quick criticism of either my work or parenting might cause me to have less pride and confidence in what I do, affecting my performance.  If someone has something important to tell me, they can take me aside later and discuss it gently.

I resolved that despite my love of a good, analytical discussion that gets as close as possible to the full truth, I would try to listen first, praise as indicated, and question later and carefully, if at all.  HaShem preserved Avraham Avinu’s (Abraham, our forefather's) kavod (honor) by not telling him the full truth that Sarah, his wife, had laughed at their ability to have a child and called him old.  I could work to be like HaShem and work to preserve the kavod of my relatives and all those around me as well, even if it goes against my nature.

Discussion Question Options:

In what ways might we inadvertently criticize or embarrass others?

What everyday factors might cause us to lash out in criticism?  How can knowing what they are help us to avoid doing so?

How responsible are we to preserve and maintain another person’s pride and self-esteem?  Why?


Stretch of the Week:

Think about whether what you have to say will be felt as criticism, and if it needs to be said.


Stretch Of The Week