Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



A wife was making a breakfast of fried eggs for her husband. Suddenly, her husband burst into the kitchen. “Careful,” he said, “CAREFUL! Put in some more butter! Oh my GD! You’re cooking too many at once. TOO MANY! Turn them! TURN THEM NOW! We need more butter. Oh my GD! WHERE are we going to get MORE BUTTER? They’re going to STICK! Careful. CAREFUL! I said be CAREFUL! You NEVER listen to me when you're cooking! Never! Turn them! Hurry up! Are you CRAZY? Have you LOST your mind? Don’t forget to salt them. You know you always forget to salt them. Use the salt. USE THE SALT! THE SALT!”

The wife stared at him. “What in the world is wrong with you? You think I don’t know how to fry a couple of eggs?”

The husband calmly replied, “I just wanted to show you what it feels like when I’m driving!”

This story reflects what must be considered one of the most difficult commandments in the entire Torah (Lev. 19:17): Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha, hocheyach tochi-ach et amitecha, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely reprove your friend so that you do not come to sin because of him.” Yes, there is a mitzvah, a commandment to rebuke, to criticize, to express your disapproval to others when they do wrong! If we don’t, then they might never realize what they’re doing wrong, and we might then grow to dislike them or even hate them in our hearts—and that’s a sin according to this verse! It is, therefore, better for them—as well as for us—that we express criticism and rebuke. So the next time you’re yelling at your kid or your spouse, remember, it’s a mitzvah—NOT!

There are 2 famous statements in the Talmud (Arachin 16b) about criticism. Rabbi Tarfon cautions us: “I wonder if there is anyone left in this generation who knows how to take criticism.” And Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah went even further: “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to give criticism!” Our sages understood that it can be hurtful and hard for one to accept criticism. But they also understood that part of the problem is that most people don’t know how to give criticism in a way that it will be heard and received!

Yehudah Halevi, the great 12th century philosopher, taught in the Kuzari that if you reprove your neighbor, your intent must be to improve. Isn’t that magnificent? Let me repeat it: reprove only in order to improve. The purpose of criticism must be to help encourage the person to change. He continues: “Criticism should be given in a way that the person will remain your friend, hear you and learn from you.” Putting my therapist hat on, I would say that you should think before you criticize and ask yourself: “Will the person I’m criticizing be open to what I’m saying? Am I saying it in the most effective way?” You see, ultimately it’s not about who is right or wrong. If you want to help make a positive change in a person, you must try to do it in a way that will work.

This is a great message as the presidential campaign begins to heat up. Soon we will see our television screens light up with attack ad after attack ad—each candidate criticizing the other. And you can bet that each criticism will be well thought out for effectiveness—but not to affect change in the other, but rather to bring the other down. It’s just wrong and I can’t bear to listen to it. So during campaign season I rarely listen to live TV. I watch shows that I have DVR’ed so that I can fast forward through those ads. 

There’s no country in the world that receives more criticism than Israel. Israel, however, is open to criticism and has proven that again and again—like it did by establishing a special commission to study the behavior of its soldiers in Gaza a couple of years ago. And the Israeli press is highly critical of its own country. One of my colleagues once remarked, “Looking in from the outside, you might think that criticism of their government is the Israel national sport!”

There are those who criticize Israel and yet mean it no harm, and there are those who criticize Israel because they mean it no good. Those who criticize Israel but remain silent when other countries do the same things and worse reveal their true intensions. This is especially apparent when Israel is criticized by accusing it of behaving like Nazis. Richard Cravatts wrote in the Jewish Press last month (4/12/12) about academic criticism of Israel in our universities: Zionism is regularly equated with Nazism, and the perceived offenses of Israel’s government and military are likened to Nazi crimes against humanity; the notion is that Israel is creating a “Holocaust in the Holy Land” through “ethnic cleansing,” an ongoing “genocide” of Arabs, and the elimination of the rights of an innocent, “indigenous people” who merely seek self-determination and the peaceful creation of a Palestinian homeland. I ask you: can it be that Israelis are the last remaining Nazis in the world? This is such a one-sided distortion of events that it rises to the level of being vile and vicious—and this from the college professors that teach our children!

When the Torah gives us the command to criticize it does it with a double expression: Hocheyach tochiach. This tells us that criticizing must be a double action. Before criticizing others we must be critical of ourselves to see what’s really motivating us. I wonder what motivates Peter Beinart. Jonathan Rosen in the NY Times, reviews Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, and writes: He  calls Israel’s leaders racist, denounces many of its American supporters as ­Holocaust-obsessed enablers, and advocates a boycott of products from beyond Israel’s 1967 eastern border…He minimizes the effects and threats of terrorism, belittles those who harp on a Hamas charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews the world over, and plays down the magnitude of the Palestinian demand for a right of return that would destroy the Jewish State. Beinart was raised as an orthodox Jew. He sends his kids to a Jewish day school. What is he thinking? I wonder if there is some deep seated resentment of his Jewish past motivating this.

Who doesn’t criticize from time to time? The Midrash teaches: “Kol ahava sheh-eyn ima tochacha, eyna ahava, “Any love which does not have some rebuke or criticism within it is not really love.” Part of the reason Gd put us together with our loved ones is the each of us has a unique capacity to help each other grow and better ourselves. But criticism must be given with love and compassion—sweetly and softly, when possible. In fact, from my work as a couples therapist I estimate that for criticism to be effective, at least 4 out of 5 things you say to the one you criticize—whether it’s your children or spouse or whomever—must be positive or neutral—4 out of 5! Otherwise they’ll just close themselves up and not listen.

Think about it. If all one ever hears is criticism and negativity, it brings one down, making him feel worthless. There’s no place for blame, contempt or caustic criticism in loving relationships. So don’t let them creep in to yours!

We must criticize and correct our children’s behavior. That’s our job as parents. But how we do it can be transforming. If we tell our children that “they’re no good,” or that that “they’re stupid,” then that’s what they’ll think of themselves and that’s what they’ll become. But, even when we get upset at them for something wrong that they did…if we hug them and tell them that “they are an image of Gd and a holy soul, and that they could do better,” we can uplift them even as we criticize!

The most powerful thing that Gd gave us is our mouths. A mouth can create or destroy worlds. If the eye is a window to the soul, the mouth is a door because it shows the world who we really are. It effects and changes things and, therefore, it’s a tool that must be used very very carefully. So don’t react instinctively without thought. Think before you speak. And when you’re about to criticize, think again! Think about how effective what you are going to say will be. Ask yourself: “Will my criticism bring about the positive change I’m looking for, or will throwing a verbal dart at someone only make me feel better for the moment but in the end make things worse?

And until you can figure out how be effective in your criticism, consider the advice of Rabbi Simon in Ethics of the Fathers (1:17): “I have found nothing better for oneself than silence.” Or as Abraham Lincoln put it: “Better to be thought of as a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubts.” If you have nothing positive to say, if your criticism isn’t positively motivated, you’d be better off to keep your mouth shut!

And most of all, don’t wait till you have a criticism in mind to say something good beforehand. Make at least 4 out of 5 of the things you say positive or neutral. When the ones you criticize feel from all the compliments you gave that you genuinely love and appreciate them, it makes it safe to really listen and take in what you have to say. And when we give our criticism with love, then we will be able to see the fulfillment of the next verse: V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha, “to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”  Amen!

                                               Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                                                5/5/12 (see 5769)

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