Shabbat-Table Talks: Yitro

To read last year's Table Talk on Yitro click here.



By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil


Value: Giving constructive criticism. Learning how to criticize constructively can improve the lives of the people around you. Focusing on the way you can benefit others and making certain that you are motivated by a strong desire for improving the lot of others is an essential prerequisite of constructive criticism. We must be careful not to fall into the trap of wanting to criticize just in order to feel good and useful (or superior). Criticizing in the context of a positive relationship makes the criticism more acceptable and effective.


Background: Yitro heard about Israel’s exodus from Egypt and came to the wilderness to see Moshe. On the day of his arrival, Yitro marvels at the miracles that God had wrought for Israel. Full of joy, Yitro blesses God’s justness of the God of Yisrael saying: Barukh Hashem who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that Hashem is greater than all gods, yes by the result of their very schemes against the people. (Exodus 18:10-11;NJPS)


Yitro’s second day begins with a different tone. He saw Israel standing about, waiting for Moshe to judge their cases and Yitro is critical. Yitro says:


Text: Shemot 18:14, 17-19, 23

What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?


…The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you!


[Yitro details his plan for Moshe to institute a hierarchical judicial system. Yitro concludes:]


Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.


Analysis: What made Yitro criticize the way Moshe was judging the people? (He wanted the best for Moshe and the people.)


Was it ok for him to criticize? (Absolutely. Being able to help people sometimes means pointing out a better way to do things. If we learn how to do it in a way that does not lead to a backlash, it is not only appropriate, it is an obligation—an act of kindness.)


Why do you think Moshe was better able to accept Yitro’s ideas? (From Yitro’s joyful statements of the previous day, it was clear that Yitro identified with Israel, and wanted only their good. Yitro sincerely developed a good relationship with Moshe and Israel. Although Yitro’s criticism was direct (“the thing you are doing is not right”), Moshe was able to accept it. )


From Yitro we can learn some important lessons about how to give criticism in a constructive way.



What kind of criticism do you hate to get?

Is there any time that you appreciate criticism?

Can criticism ever be helpful?

How would you like to be told about the ways you can improve?



The following story reveals some of the positive and not so positive motivations of criticism.


Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor (1817-1896), the Rav of Kovno, once summoned a man who had been very critical of a group in the community which had transgressed certain Torah laws. “What right do you have to criticize them so sharply?” Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan asked. “What gives you the authority to humiliate them publicly?”

The man was startled by the question. “Rebe,” he replied, “you yourself have admonished them. Why are you upset with me for what I said about them?”

“You are right,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan. “We do share a similarity. Both of us are upset that those people have sinned. However, there is a great difference between you and me—the difference between a housewife and a cat.”

“A housewife and a cat?” the startled man asked.

“Yes,” answered the great sage. “I am like the housewife who chases mice from her home because she wishes them out. You are like the cat that chases mice because she wants to eat them. The housewife would be happier if the mice never showed up in the first place. The cat would rather that the mice appear, so that he can torment, hound, and devour them.


“I would have preferred that those people had never sinned. You, on the other hand, revel in the fact that they have sinned so that you have the opportunity to chastise, humiliate, and reproach them.”

(From Further along the Maggid’s Path, Rabbi P. Krohn, p. 108)


The story compares people who criticize to housewives and cats. Spend some time to understand the metaphor before going on to the story’s meaning.

Who is the housewife? (The person who criticizes because he wants fewer mistakes.)

Who is the cat? (The person who is happy when someone else makes a mistake so that he can correct him.)

What are the mice? (The mice are the mistakes.)


When giving criticism, we should be motivated by a sense of wanting to improve the situation. We would be happier if the situation were already good, but now that it is not, we feel the obligation to improve it, because we love the people and cannot see them suffer.


To read last year's Table Talk on Yitro click here.


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