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Parshas Vayechi

Giving Criticism

Ya’akov finished instructing his sons. He gathered his feet onto the bed and expired. He was gathered to his people. (Bereishis 49:33)

It is hard to believe, but we have reached the last parshah of Sefer Bereishis. Chazak! It has been eleven weeks since Simchas Torah, when we began the Torah all over again, as we have done now for thousands of years. Where has the time gone?

Some say time is actually speeding up. This may simply be an illusion, the product of so much distraction that we can barely be conscious of the passage of time. One hundred years ago life was much simpler and the world was much smaller. It could take weeks before someone found out what happened half across the globe. Today it takes seconds, as information constantly streams in from all over the world. There is so much to juggle at one time.

In the meantime, technology becomes increasingly more magical. Once toys were only for children; today they are more sophisticated and expensive, and for adults as well. Some are small and some are large, but all of them engage the interest of their owners to such a degree that they are no longer that conscious of their immediate surroundings.

Today, a person gets onto a bus or into a taxi and immediately reaches for his cell phone to make a call, or his smart phone to check his mail. Minutes will go by and the scenery will change around him, but he won’t be aware of it, involved inSome say time is actually speeding up, literally. I heard a radio interview not long ago with a scientist who said that the earth’s rotation is a little quicker than it use to be, making the day a little shorter. I’m not sure how that affects clocks that work according to a 24-hour day, but it is an interesting idea nonetheless. Whatever the reason, not only does time fly these days, but it seems to do so at supersonic speed!

We’ve known for some time that time is relative (boring relatives make time seem to move slower). And, though it seems to exist in the background, the truth is, it is crucial for making life meaningful. Without it and its deadlines, we probably wouldn’t accomplish very much from day to day, feeling that we can always put off until tomorrow what we could have done today.

Deadlines change all of that. People who appreciate how precious life is also appreciate the value of a moment. They are the ones who do not put off until tomorrow what can be done today, because tomorrow’s opportunity may never come. Things constantly change and life is full of surprises so the wise man seizes the moment and always uses it meaningfully.

In essence, this is a large part of what Ya’akov Avinu is trying to convey to his sons from his deathbed. His blessings to his sons were a lot more than just well-wishing, but rather, it was insight into each son’s potential, so they could best know how to spend their lives in the service of God. Wasting time is easy. Utilizing it properly is an art.

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Blessings? Actually, it sounds more like just a lot of criticism. Perhaps, but as the Talmud states:

Rebi said: “Which is the proper path that a person should choose for himself? He should love criticism, because as long criticism is in the world, pleasantness comes to the world and evil is removed from the world” . . . Rebi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rebi Yonason: “Anyone who criticizes his friend for the sake of Heaven merits the portion of The Holy One, Blessed is He . . . Not only this, they enwrap him with a thread of kindness.” (Tamid 28a)

It is easy to criticize, but much more difficult to do it for the benefit of the other person. Criticizing for the sake of Heaven means not doing it for your own benefit, either directly or indirectly, but purely for the improvement of the person being criticized. A lot of people think that they are criticizing for this reason, but really they are doing it for themselves; it is easy to be deluded about this.

The inherent problem in doing it for the wrong reason is that, not only will the criticism not accomplish its goal, but it will even backfire on the person. Rather than be a mitzvah, it will become the person’s own sin. In fact, Jewish Law tells us that if criticism will not be accepted by a person, and maybe even make the person more rebellious, giving the criticism anyhow is a sin. That’s the opposite of getting the portion of God mentioned above by the Talmud.

The criticizer certainly won’t receive a Heavenly “thread of kindness” for this, evident by the reaction he or she will receive as a result of the criticism. On the contrary, the mistake will entangle them, instead, in a thread of hatred, as Yosef himself found out when he told his father about the perceived wrongdoings of his brother.

It’s not that the criticism is totally baseless (although oftentimes it can be). Rather, when it leveled for the wrong reasons, it is often way out of proportion, making it impossible to accept. The criticizer’s mouth says, “I just want to point out to you, for your benefit of course, that you are making the following error . . .” However, the person’s heart usually says something like:

“You may not be doing anything all that wrong. Still, it makes me feel insecure, or bad, or something negative, and since I can’t fix the problem in me I’m going to try and change you instead.”

Such people, of course, can never admit to themselves that this is what is really going on when they complain about others, even though others around them can often see it for themselves. It’s not so hard when there is little evidence to support the criticism, and the person giving it usually has other symptoms of insecurity or of a personality disorder of some type.

But, admittedly, nothing happens for no reason. As the Talmud states, no one lifts a finger if it is not first decreed by Heaven. So, even if someone comes up to you and criticizes you in way that you, and perhaps others who know you, believe is unfounded, there is still Divine Providence involved. God is talking to you through this person, and his or her criticism, and you have to take the time to figure out what He is saying, even if it is probably not the point of the criticism.

This is especially so when the person doing the criticizing is clearly unable to hold himself or herself back for their own personal reasons. Since their own personal shortcomings are compelling them to take you down a few notches, they are more like Divine messengers than normal, healthy people who would criticize you for your sake.

None of this, of course, was an issue by Ya’akov Avinu in this week’s parshah, or Moshe Rabbeinu in Sefer Devarim, where he recounts the flaws of the Jewish people. Both were individuals who changed themselves before they changed the world, being interested in self-growth for the sake of being closer to God. People who lie to themselves about their own problems, for which they tend to blame other people, cannot be close to God, no matter how much they act the part.

Rather, both criticized as they did because they were concerned first and foremost about the perfection of the Jewish people, and their future relationship to God. Their only mandate was to bring about the final rectification of Creation, not to make people get in line with their own personal programs. Ya’akov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu always acted l’Shem Shemayaim—for the sake of Heaven—and merited, as a result, a thread of kindness. To this very day they are loved and revered.

One final note on this issue. Even when a person does criticize others for the right reasons, he still has to be careful about how he does it. It is not called the “Art of Criticism” for nothing; it truly is an art, to the extent that the Talmud says there really isn’t anyone today who can do it correctly (Sotah 49a).

Therefore, it would not hurt, prior to criticizing someone, to pray to God for some help. It’s that serious a matter, especially since the Talmud says elsewhere that to not criticize someone who is erring is to share in their sin (Shabbos 54b). When we can protest against something wrong and don’t, Heaven holds accountable for the sins we could have prevented but didn’t.

So, to not criticize and point out people’s mistakes when we can results in our own sin. To criticize others when we can’t make a difference, is also a sin. It’s quite a precarious position to be in, which is why it is a good idea to include God in the picture. Pray for some guidance, to know when to criticize others, and how to do it.

This will invoke Divine mercy, and probably result in a scenario in which your criticism will be appropriate, and the wisdom to do it meaningfully. Then, not only will you avoid sin, but you will become wrapped in a Heavenly thread of kindness that will allow you to find favor in God’s eyes, the eyes of others, and even the people you straighten out.


Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.


 






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