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: Think about whether what you have to say will be felt as criticism, and if it needs to be said.
Please allow ONE person to share her experience with this exercise for ONE minute.
Lesson # 10
Although criticism must generally be avoided, there is a time when we are in fact obligated to point out someone else’s shortcomings. The Torah (Vayikra 19:17) commands us, “You shall give rebuke to your friend.” However, even then, we are obligated to give mussar in the nicest way possible.
There are two reasons why it is hard for a person to hear mussar. Firstly, a person needs to feel good about himself. He struggles to confront his imperfections. Secondly, he desperately wants the respect of others. He wants to be seen as perfect, or at least a near perfect person.
After telling us the mitzva of tochacha, the Torah concludes, “And one should not place the sin upon him.” These words were once explained as follows: One should not make the sin heavy upon him, placing the full weight of his actions upon him. One shouldn’t say, “How could you have done such a terrible thing?” Rather, one should gently bring up the wrongdoing and allow the person to realize on his own the severity of his action. In this way, he won’t feel that you think less of him.
In addition, we shouldn’t make the other person feel that his mistake has been consuming our mind. Rabbi Daniel Kalish and many Gedolim, greats of earlier generations, bring out this idea beautifully from pesukim in Parshas Vayatzei. When Yaakov Avinu meets the shepherds idling around the well, he first engages them in friendly conversation: “My brothers, where are you from…?” Only afterwards does he reprimand them for not working: “There is still much time left in the day to work…”
When the first thing we tell someone is words of criticism, he is likely to feel that this is what we’ve been thinking about, how we perceive him. However, if we are in the middle of talking about something else and say, “By the way, I forgot to tell you…” it will be much easier for him to swallow our critique. For this reason, when time is not an issue, we are better off waiting a few days.
One can really hurt a person with inappropriate mussar. He must not be lazy in considering how he can approach the issue in the most non-invasive way possible. Otherwise, he has hurt someone else’s kavod for no reason. The pasuk immediately following the mitzva of tochacha states (Vayikra 19:18), “Do not take revenge, do not hold a grudge, and you shall love your friend like yourself.” The message is crystal clear. Mussar should not stem from resentment; it must be delivered out of concern and care.
(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)
Twenty five years ago, I was a senior at Stern College searching out and chasing down recommendations for my graduate school applications. I managed to get my department head and one of my favorite professors to agree to write a recommendation and was now up to gently reminding them to submit the letters, but had trouble deciding on who I should ask for the third letter. My reminders became a bit stronger as each week went by past the promised dates.
Once I finally realized which professor would be perfect based on advice from others applying to the same schools, it took me another two weeks to find the time to speak to him while he was at school (these were the days before email.) He agreed but told me that others had asked before me and he had to finish theirs first, so it might be several weeks. I was annoyed, mostly at myself, because Dr. Sternbach was known as one of the nicest, most caring and helpful human beings on earth in addition to being an expert in his field. He had already helped me along and encouraged me over the past years, always with a smile or serious, caring eyes. So I thanked him and hoped that his nature would speed him up a bit, as my deadlines were looming.
Somehow in my head, I convinced myself that Dr. Sternbach would rush my letter, so when I finally received my other two letters after a week and a half and was itching to send my applications, I approached Dr. Sternbach and asked if he might have my letter almost ready, as I really needed to move along and I was only waiting for his letter. I sort of knew I was out of line to pressure him and hold him to my personal deadline when he had advised me otherwise, but I felt desperate. The response I received is one I still remember, twenty five years later, mostly for the look on Dr. Sternbach’s face.
“It is not right for you to speak like this,” he said calmly and carefully, with those serious eyes taking me to task gently and without anger. “I never promised you what you are asking, although I see that you are anxious and will get it to you as soon as I can. Please be more careful next time.” And then he moved on.
I had treated Dr. Sternbach incorrectly and he had called me on it. Most people would probably say nothing but be annoyed about it and possibly hold it against me, even if it was unconsciously. But he wanted me to do better. And, I desperately wanted him to see me as the accomplished student I always felt I was in his class, not as I felt at that moment.
It took me many years to realize the amazing tochacha I had been given. I still received a smile when I passed Dr. Sternbach in the halls afterwards, and he wrote me a beautiful recommendation that he delivered with plenty of time to spare, again with a smile. I was recently married and pregnant at the time, and he did not make me feel like a child being scolded. Instead, I felt that I was better than what I had done, that Dr. Sternbach knew this, and that I wanted to be that better person.
The funny thing is, I'm not even sure I remember his exact words correctly, but I definitely remember his face and tone of voice clearly, a slightly drawn back face with dark eyes framed by white hair and beard and a soft and measured voice. Altogether, he reminded me of a serious malach, cloaked in dedication, often in joy but that day with a different, directed purpose. It all said to me, "Examine your actions. You really can't speak like this. You're more than that - I've seen it."
Dr. Sternbach continued to give me kavod, after he said this to me and while he did so. He cared enough about me and my neshama to not let a bad middah slide by, and, because he cared, I listened. When I am about to impose my own demands and schedule on someone and imply that they owe me something simply because I need it, I can see Dr. Sternbach's face, like Yosef HaTzadik saw his father's face, and it helps me to stop.
Questions for Discussion:
How important are the specific words used while rebuking? The tone of voice? Body language and facial expression?
In what ways can the impact of rebuke depend on who delivers it and how he feels about the person being rebuked? Who might be best, and who should not do it?
How can we use timing as a tool when giving rebuke?
Stretch of the Week:
Before rebuking someone for a misdeed, take time to remind yourself of the respect you have for this person and how you can help best.