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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Sisa: Constructive reproof versus destructive criticism

Summary

A person who loves G'd, his fellow beings and righteousness, will also love reproof. If we truly love each other then we will be ready to reprove each other with constructive criticism. And if we fail to reprove one another then we will carry each other's sins. If someone did something that upset you, do not go around with a grudge against him in your heart. Reproof will affect the cynic like water off a duck's back. The wise person is looking to perfect his character, and is always ready to listen to reproof from others. A real friend is someone one can confide in and who will give reproof if needed. Only the person who is ready to accept and give reproof truly looks for perfection. G'd told Moses that what brought the idol worshippers to degenerate and fall so low was their character of being stiff-necked. Constructive criticism is borne out of love and friendship.

Love reproof

A person who loves G'd, his fellow beings and righteousness, will also love reproof. This is the next thing that the Mishnah mentions that one needs in order to acquire Torah. For such a person will want to make sure that both he and his fellow beings do everything right according to the Torah in order to please G'd. This person will both accept reproof from others, and be ready to reprove them in case they do something wrong.

Carry other's sins

The Torah teaches that all Jews are responsible for each other (see Rashi Devarim 29:28). With this in mind, we can well understand the Torah's command (Vayikra 19:17): "Do not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely reprove your friend, and do not carry a sin because of him." Every verse in the Torah can be understood on various levels. On one level this verse instructs us not to hate each other, even in our hearts. If we truly love each other then we will be ready to reprove each other with constructive criticism. And if we fail to reprove one another then we will carry each other's sins. As the Talmud (Shabbos 54b) teaches that a person who is in a position to reprove his fellow being and refrains from doing so, it is considered as if he did the transgression himself (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeitzei: Love and rebuke, November 29, 2006).

No grudge in your heart

The Or HaChaim interprets this verse differently and explains it in the following way. If someone did something that upset you, do not go around with a grudge against him in your heart. Rather, tell him you understand that he may not have meant to hurt you, but what he did bothers you. In this way you will stay friends. For either he will explain to you that he had no bad intentions at all, or he will apologize and promise not to do it again.

Do not reprove a cynic

It says in Mishlei (9:8): "Do not reprove a cynic lest he will hate you; reprove the wise and he will love you." The Eben Ezra explains that the cynic thinks he is smarter than anyone else and feels that he is always right. Therefore, he will never be ready to accept reproof. If one tries to reprove him, he will shrug it off at best, or more likely he will poke fun at the whole situation with a mocking comment. As our sages say, "One mocking comment will push away a hundred reproofs." Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Path of the Just Chapter 5) explains that reproof will affect the cynic like water off a duck's back. He is so smooth and slippery that nothing will penetrate.

Wise person listens

On the other hand, says the Eben Ezra, the wise person is looking to perfect his character, and is always ready to listen to reproof from others. Unlike the cynic, he knows that he is not perfect and feels that there is always room for improvement. This is how Torah scholars conduct themselves. As the Talmud (Erechin 16b) relates that Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri said that he often reported Rabbi Akiva's conduct to their teacher and Rabbi Akiva would only love him more for it.

Real friend

Says the Rambam, this is the significance of what it says in Pirkei Avos (1:6): "You shall acquire a friend for yourself." A real friend, says the Rambam, is someone one can confide in and who will give reproof if needed. The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary on Mishlei, explains that this person should act like a magnifying mirror that ladies use to make sure that they look as perfect as possible. The more the mirror reveals the better, for in that way they can fix what is necessary. In the same way, one should appreciate when one is made aware of even a minor flaw in one's conduct. For this is the way to reach perfection. It is well known that the Vilna Gaon conducted himself in this way and employed the Dubno Maggid to reprove him.

Seek perfection

The Torah is perfect (see Tehillim 19:8) and in order to acquire Torah one must seek perfection. Only the person who is ready to accept and give reproof truly looks for perfection. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, the Lakewood Mashgiach, explains that this is one of the reasons why the Torah relates how Yisro came out to the Wilderness prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai (see Shemos 18). For when Yisro saw how Moses conducted his court, he reproved him and Moses accepted the reproof. By writing this just before the giving of the Torah, says Rabbi Salomon, the Torah teaches us that only someone who is ready to accept reproof will be able to acquire the Torah.

Stiff-necked

On the other hand, we see in this week's Parasha how serious it is when someone is not ready to accept reproof. After the Jewish people served the golden calf, G'd said to Moses (Shemos 32:7-10): "Your nation has degenerated they have made themselves a molten calf and have bowed down to it And G'd said to Moses, 'I have seen this nation and behold it is a stiff-necked people and I shall annihilate them.'" An obvious question arises in regard to these verses. G'd already told Moses that the Jewish people had made a golden calf, so it seems redundant when G'd says that they are stiff-necked. One answer to this question is that G'd told Moses that what brought the idol worshippers to degenerate and fall so low was their character of being stiff-necked. The commentaries explain that being stiff-necked prevented them from turning towards those who were trying to reprove them and from listening to what they had to say. It brought them not only to idol worship but to adultery and bloodshed as well (see Rashi ibid 32:6). No wonder that G'd got so angry and was ready to wipe them out. Only through Moses' prayer were they saved from immediate annihilation, G'd forbid.

Constructive criticism

We live in a time when people, in general, and the media, in particular, are only too happy to criticize others. This criticism is very different than the reproof the Torah advocates. The purpose of this criticism is to knock one's opponents and to destroy them. The Torah, on the other hand, talks about constructive criticism that is borne out of love and friendship. May we all merit to live up to the ideals of the Torah and thereby be able to acquire Torah both for ourselves and others.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at michael@deverettlaw.com .


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