Shabbat-Table Talks: Yitro
By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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!
details his plan for Moshe to institute a hierarchical judicial system. Yitro
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
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
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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