Honorable Mentchen II: Appropriate Criticism

17 11 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Honorable Mention II: Appropriate Criticism #1

In his Shabbat Shuva drasha, Rav Chaim Brisker would say, “Chaim is speaking to Chaim, but if you wish you can eavesdrop.” A very productive way to give criticism is to accept part of the blame and admit that you too have the same problem. This makes the perpetrator far less ashamed of doing wrong, and moves him towards rectifying his flaws.


Confine your criticism to a specific act. General criticism demoralizes people. It’s important not to make unrealistic demands. Suggest small steps and ways to improve.  A good way to offer criticism to a miser would be, “Maybe this year you can give one percent more.” Increase the amounts little by little and soon the miser will turn into a generous donor. It is forbidden to shame someone in public. However if by remaining silent you will condone unethical behavior, you may speak out. In fact the gemara in Avodah Zarah says that if you don’t rebuke a sinner, you bear responsibility for the sin as well. If someone is speaking lashon hara and circumstances make it difficult to stop him, try to change the subject. If that fails, get up and leave.


The quintessential example of proper criticism is the story of King David and Natan Hanavi.  The prophet approached the king after he had sent Bathsheva’s husband to his death. He came in the guise of one soliciting advice. There were two men, one wealthy and one poor, who lived in the same city. The rich man had many sheep while the poor man had one small lamb. One day, a guest came to call at the rich man’s house. The wealthy host took the poor man’s lone lamb and prepared a meal for his guest. The prophet then asked the king, “What should be done to this wealthy man?” King David immediately answered that he deserved death. Natan Hanavi then told David that he was the man.  By depersonalizing the rebuke, the prophet was able to make King David view the act in its moral simplicity and indeed he had no choice but to admit and repent.


Think about all the times you were criticized and didn’t change. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm would say, “Don’t become angry if you can’t make people be the way you wish them to be, because you too can’t make yourself the way you wish to be.” Confront the person himself.  It’s very tempting to share our resentment of someone with others. However, the obligation is to rebuke the person himself, not destroy his good name. Give him an opportunity to defend himself. Before criticizing someone, ask yourself the following questions: Am I being fair or am I exaggerating?  How can I express myself without inflicting too much pain? How would I feel if someone criticized me this way? Am I enjoying criticizing this person? Is my criticism confined to a specific act or trait? Are my words non-threatening and in part reassuring?


In Parshat Kedoshim, the verse says, “You shall rebuke your fellow man and do not bear sin because of him.” Rashi explains that rebuking should be done with sensitivity. Do not publicly embarrass the offender. It is both ineffective and immoral, and only puts the sinner on the offensive. In addition, you will have lost the opportunity to bring about change. The Sefer Hachinuch notes that criticism should be delivered privately, with tact and refinement.


Mastering the art of constructive criticism takes thought and insight.  Let’s invest the effort to do it right.

Class Spotlight: Honorable Mentchen – Character Pitfalls #2

24 05 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller


This new course introduces a series of mini-workshops on the vital topic of personal character and the implementation of moral sensitivity into our daily lives. Featuring Rabbi Hanoch Teller at his best, these short 20 minute lectures are sure to add an inspirational lift to your day!

Too often, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to change others, when in reality we can change only ourselves. The Mishna in Avot says, “Who is mighty? One conquers his evil inclination.” Western society considers one who prevails over others to be mighty, but our Rabbis emphasize that it is really one who prevails over himself.

The more conscious we are of our weaknesses, the more we can try to curb them before they damage ourselves and others. If we refuse to acknowledge our character failings, we will inevitably rationalize our flaws, and try to demonize and find fault with others. Just as our sages instituted numerous rabbinic prohibitions or fences so that we would not come to transgress Torah law, we must erect fences around our evil character traits to prevent us from stumbling. Rav Yisrael Salanter once said that a person is like a bird. He can fly ever so high but if his wings stop flapping, he will inevitably fall down. Working on our middot is a constant battle and we must be watchful at all times.

The first step to improvement is to admit our wrongs. Instead of correcting their mistakes, people have a tendency to persist in their errors. To quote Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “One who makes a mistake and doesn’t correct it is making a second mistake.” Many times, parents will err with their children and place unrealistic demands on them. They may even see their child suffering and still continue on their ill chosen path.

Time is life and one can literally commit slow suicide by killing time. It is important to have proper priorities and to preoccupy ourselves with doing good for others instead of thinking only of ourselves. We should ask ourselves, “Are we giving our children a feeling of being loved and appreciated?”

Our tombstones will never be inscribed with the epithets, “She had the shiniest floors or he drove the fanciest car.” Instead, people will remember you as, “The good neighbor or the loving mother.” Small acts of kindness, thoughtful deeds, and giving of oneself without thought of remuneration, will remain with us for eternity. The famous coach, Vincent Bardey, was wont to say, “Being the winner is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.” Similarly, Rabbi Shimon Finkelman points out, “Being good is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.”