Thursday, February 4, 2010


Have you ever wondered what it takes to successfully offer criticism? Have you ever thought "What might make it easier for me to accept criticism? " Truth is we all need to hear correction.
None of us is so complete that we can rely on our own mind-set to know where we need to improve. They say of the Vilna Gaon, he insisted on hearing tochacha from the Dubne Magid.
And yes, its our responsibility to offer critique, not only to stop another from sinning, the mitzva of hochaich tocheyach, but so as to help a person and ease their situation. Yet how do we do it so we don't engender antagonism.

The Torah this week in the Parsha of Yitro tells us that even Moshe needed critique. Yitro, his father-in-law, saw Moshe judging the people from morning until evening without the benifit of support. He said to him " Its not good this thing that you are doing. Both you and the people will wear down...." Yitro advised Moshe to set-up a judicial system in which Moshe would delegate responsibility.

What we can we learn about criticism from the story in the parsha? What might it have to teach us to help us both receive and give necessary advice?

Let's explore the story a bit more in detail. The story begins with Yitro travelling from Midian to visit Moshe in the wilderness. He brings Moshe's wife, Yitro's daughter, Tzipora, with him, as well as Moshe's two sons. We are told that Moshe spent time with Yitro telling him of all the wonders Hashem had done for His people. Yitro, we are told, reacts with a great expression of joy. The Torah says " vayichad Yitro", meaning that Yitro's joy was visible and manifest. Yitro expressed his delight blessing the G-d who saved the Israelites. He goes so far and to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving from which Aaron and the elders too partook.

It is only after all this, on the next day, that Yitro observes the people waiting all day for the judgement of Moshe and he offers his critique. The lesson for me here seems clear and compelling. If one is going to offer advice, correction, and/or criticism to another it need be done in the context of a relationship. We cannot simply stand off to the side and throw advice to another and expect that it will be received, no matter how good the advice may be. If you are going to influence someone else so that they truly listen to what you have to share and do not become defensive you first need to join them, to establish a sense of community. When we are one with another anything we share can be heard. And similarly we can hear the challenge of another. When we are perceived as other, nothing critical we say will be accepted. And similarly when we perceive advice and challenge as coming from an other it will be very difficult for us to hear.

So typically when we know we have criticism to offer we step back, or worse step up,becoming as it were like a parent/teacher to the other. We distance ourselves emotionally even from people we are otherwise close to when we have challenge to offer. The effect of our position causes the other to perceive us as distant or worse condescending. The upshot is that what we say is likely to engender resistance and maybe even anger.

The story of Yitro teaches us that in anticipation of offering challenge and critique we need to do counter to our instinct and move closer to the other. S/he needs to perceive us as friend and equal, as someone who shares with him/her in a community of caring. Once intimacy and a sense of oneness are present anything can be heard. Without that connection critique is for the most part futile and unhelpful.

Those of our brothers and sisters in chutz l'aretz are often miffed that we in Israel do not take kindly to their criticism of the politics here. They wonder why we become resistant. From their perspective, they too love Israel and want her best. They support Israel in money and time. Why is their advice so poorly received?

The answer is embedded in the story of this week. Yitro did not stay in Midian and offer advice to Moshe. Nor did he simply come and make suggestions. First he joined the community. He became one with the people. He felt there pain and joy. He ate with them. Only after did he dare make suggestions, no matter how good.

Its hard to imagine a more significant issue for most of us than giving and receiving criticism.
To live effectively we need to do both well. The parsha teaches us that being successful at it has not to do with the words we use or are used to us, nor with how good the advice. The real issue is where we are in connection to the other. Are we equals? Do we share community? Are we perceived as joined in a common agenda?

The work for us is to move near and to advise from within. Its not enough to want the best for the other. We need to make that person feel they are not an other at all, but simply an-other part of us!

Shabbat Shalom

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