Constructive Criticism

“I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?”(Bereishis 45:3)

The art of reproof is indeed a job for a specialist, yet, the Torah commands everyone to reprove a friend for wrongdoing (Vayikra 19:17).

It’s not uncommon for one person to see another transgressing a commandment and to want to correct the erroneous behavior. Yet all too often, at the last second, one holds back and does not deliver the corrective words that the situation requires.

Why is this a reality of human behavior? It is because one fears the reaction of the wrongdoer. One fears, perhaps, that the sinner will be insulted, or concludes that the transgressor will not heed the words of reproof anyway! Therefore, one declines to act and justifies the inaction, saying, “Just as there is a mitzvah to say words of rebuke that will be accepted, so, too, there is a mitzvah for a person not to say words of rebuke that will not be accepted” (Yevamot 65b).

Most would support this reasoning; however, this thought process is an error. In truth, one must reprove when the situation calls for rebuke, yet one must know how to criticize constructively.

King Shelomoh said: “Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you” (Mishlei 9:8). Alshich explained: “Do not rebuke a person by categorizing him as a ‘scoffer’ and then reproving him. Why? Lest he hate you! The result will be that he will not respond positively to your criticism. However, should you first praise him as one who is wise, he will likely accept your criticism and correct his ways.”

Praise can deliver the message you want to convey. “Pas nisht” is a Yiddish phrase that expresses: “Your behavior is not fitting for someone as good as you.” When you praise someone and show respect, the person will be drawn closer to you and be more amenable to your suggestions.

Sefer Chassidim (#413) notes that the mitzvah to rebuke is between two people who are close and familiar with each other, but not between persons where offense may be taken. Reproof with respect is a rare commodity! Rebi Elazar ben Azaryah said: “I wonder if there exists in this generation anyone who knows how to give rebuke” (Arachin 16b). Rashi comments: “Anyone who is capable of reproving with respect without causing the face of the one receiving the reproof to change color.”

When Yehudah approached Yosef, he intended to influence him by admonishing him to correct his mistaken behavior. The passuk says “Vayigash” — at first, he approached him; i.e., he came close. Then he whispered in his ear like a friend. Then he complimented him, saying, “I look at you as I do at Pharaoh” — like a king. Only then did he give rebuke.

Every Jew is obligated to reprove as outlined in the Halachah; however, one must first study and learn the techniques required to insure one’s criticism will be constructive.

Shabbat shalom.