A Critical Lesson – By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

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Operation Inspiration

I recently learned something about myself. I don’t take criticism well. OK, that’s not really true, because on many occasions I do take it well. As I frequently say with a grin, “I’m married. I’m used to being wrong.” This time, however, someone objected to something I’d written and it wasn’t pretty.

The specifics aren’t germane to the discussion today but a reader took issue with something I wrote. Actually, he took issue with something I DIDN’T write, meaning he felt I’d committed an act by omission. He felt that I should have quoted certain halachic sources permitting something and because I did not, he felt I distorted Torah. 

At first, though the editor of the publication strongly supported me and suggested to the fellow that he was wrong, I felt calm about the situation. I wrote the man a lengthy email, sure that once I explained my perspective he would understand. 

No such luck. The fellow came back sticking to his guns like a policeman with a glazed donut in each hand. He kept pushing his point, saying how shocked he was that someone would use the name “Rabbi” and not convey practical Halacha by quoting all the sources on the topic. I outlined my reasons for disagreement and we went back and forth several times. Each time I hit a brick wall with him I felt myself seething with anger which is very unlike me. 

The man had prefaced his initial letter with the comment that he’d never before seen the publication or anything I’d written. In that case, how could he feel he could criticize? When Yaakov met the shepherds at the well and felt they were wasting their employers’ money by bringing the sheep in early, he first called them brothers and asked where they were from. Before you criticize someone, you need to know where they’re coming from and understand their perspective. This fellow didn’t and that added to the problem.

I decided to try to learn from the experience. First of all, why was I upset? If someone had insulted me and called me a skinny string bean it wouldn’t bother me because it isn’t true. So why did it bother me now?

What I realized I needed was a cheshbon hanefesh. I had to ask myself if his criticism was correct. Maybe I was really wrong and that’s why it bothered me. However, before it originally went to print, I had discussed the matter with a Rav and Talmid Chacham I respect and he advised me how to proceed. I didn’t just do this all on my own.

Once I was sure I had not done the wrong things (not even if I really dug deep down and didn’t try to defend myself) I was able to cope with his criticism better. It didn’t hurt as much anymore because I believed it to be incorrect. Don’t get me wrong, it was still plenty annoying but it was an external pain more than an internal one.

I also thought about it from his perspective. He was defending the honor of Hashem and the Torah. What a noble cause! Of course he could not simply back down. Except that he actually did the opposite. He caused the name of Hashem to be dishonored by the unpleasant actions of a person who claimed to be representing Torah, whose ways are peaceful.

I realized that even with his good intentions, he caused pain to another person. I know what I went through and I cannot imagine Hashem patting him on the back for making me feel as he did as a means to act on his righteous indignation. It was eye-opening. 

How often do we attempt to correct people but the method is lacking? We criticize in a way that hurts them and makes them want to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction. Then we’re surprised when they don’t want to listen. When I defended myself, he didn’t budge. He righteously stood his ground. That made me hate him. [Note: Those who know me will be surprised by that last comment.]

In Mishlei, it says, “Do not rebuke a scoffer lest he hate you; rebuke a wise person and he will love you.” A homiletic explanation of this is that if you criticize someone and tell them how bad they are, they will hate you. If you want to get through to them, let them know how smart and understanding they are, then try to convey why you’re surprised that they did something that didn’t reflect that wisdom so clearly.

Not only will you be more successful in effecting a change, but you might also make a friend. He kept telling me how bad and wrong I was and all it made me think was that he was unfeeling and crazy. His mussar was worse than ineffective; it made me feel stronger in my position.

This lesson reminded me of the famous Gemara of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza which we traditionally learn on Tisha B’Av. This mean-spirited speech and ill treatment of a fellow Jew led to the person doing terrible things and bringing calamity to the entire nation. When Bar Kamtza pleaded his case asking for a little understanding, as I did of this fellow, the host responded by not budging and berating the fellow. When the Chachomim there did not protest, Bar Kamtza felt that nobody cared about him and he went to the government, leading to the churban.

The critical lesson I learned is that we must treat each other with love and respect. When we must legitimately redirect people, it should not be by knocking them down, but by lifting them up. Then we will be uplifted with them, perhaps bring blessing upon all our people, and maybe rebuild the Bais HaMikdash while we’re at it. 

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